Interests / Writing

The Words You Leave in Your Stead: The Epitaph

carvingThe fact that humans can write things down is essentially a game changer. For the first time in the history of our blue planet, information and learning wouldn’t be lost upon death. Books are a spectacular invention and it’s been noted more than once that a well written book (fictional or otherwise) has the unique ability to pull you backwards in time, get you to interact with a person you may never meet. Perhaps even hear the words of a person who left this world centuries ago. All across the unforgiving breadth of time, a feat of travel that can never be underestimated. The power of the author is something that always impresses me but there are other ways that words can break down the boundaries of time and space, sometimes in a way that we completely forget will one day (most likely) represent all of us.

The Words You’re Remembered By

I’ve recently discovered the work of Fergus Wessel, who is a stone carver of just unbelievable quality. When I think of stone carving, ancient Egypt comes to mind almost immediately but I’ve come to realise that 2,000 year old stone carvings aren’t the best example of what a stone carver can accomplish. Mr Wessel takes a block of stone and creates words and decoration that looked like they were written with a fluid fountain pen, not carefully chiseled over several days. As a stone carver, he also works a lot with memorials. His line of work means that he creates items that are inherently personal but will also be seen by strangers, possibly in the decades and centuries to come. It made me think about the simple act of an epitaph: the most succinct summary of a human being’s impact on this earth. Told by those you have left behind. What would be important to each of us, as we are now? Can we possibly think ahead to how we’ll want to be remembered when our time comes? What are the different ways that people choose to be remembered? Has it changed throughout the years? Through many graveyards I asked this question, wandering to find some answers.

Myself, Daisy Chanes and Ruby Werewolf all took a journey around a graveyard together and we took note of the similarities, traditions and the personal aspect of the carved epitaph.

The Traditional

As with many things, funeral arrangements of the past were firmly steeped in tradition. Even in death, you were locked into what was “right”, “proper” and “honorable”. Often this locked in your family as well, sometimes forcing them into lavish ceremonies and memorials despite the private wishes of those involved.

Graves in the UK are actually remarkably unique, given that it’s not unusual to find grave markings from the 1800’s in many city graveyards. When Napoleon was conquering Europe, he took with him the idea of entombment. This involved a traditional burial that came with a 10 year lifespan. Once that time was used up, the body would be transferred to the catacombs, where the skeletal remains would be kept (not always together). This left the grave site free for another burial and was a practical way of coping with an “overpopulation of the dead”. This is actually an issue that the UK is currently facing, which leads to very expensive graves, but this is not why I raise the point. Across most of Europe, you will not find a grave from the past in the easy numbers we have here in England. Keeping these ancient graves gives me a unique way of looking into how traditions have developed with regards to the epitaph.

gravestone-belovedThe image you see to the right is the most traditional and repeated word you will ever see in a graveyard. It stands from so many markers and memorials. Beloved. It’s so easy to picture a family wanting you to know this simple fact about this stranger you will never meet: they were beloved. They were cherished and cared for, they earned the love and trust that their family wanted to encapsulate for all time. With all our interactions and frantic struggles to endure and leave a lasting mark on this Earth, is there anything more important than that?

During our own excursion, it quickly became clear that the older the graves became, the more ridged the traditions. Graves from the 19th Century showed precious little variation to a single template, one which we saw repeated again and again. This didn’t serve to make the graves impersonal however, in very much the same way that few would claim that the traditional wedding vows serve to make a marriage impersonal. We noted that the template seemed to function as so.

  • A headline summarising that this is a memorial (examples include “In memoriam”, “In memory of” etc.)
  • The name of the deceased
  • Their family roles
  • A quote, poem or kind phrase

jesus graveThe quote or the kind phrase is clearly the area where the most imagination could be used. The older the grave, the more likely this would be a bible quote of some kind. We only looked at Christian burial grounds on this day but there were a few “favourites” that we saw more than once. Death would have been a lot more common in the 19th and early 20th century and we couldn’t help noticing that some of the older graves were marked with cheaper materials and even identical designed slabs. This seemed to suggest to me a lack of choice for many to mark the graves of their loved ones, and yet the messages were still just as powerful. Even in the most modern of graves, where images and photos had been included on beautifully clear marble, this template remained almost unchanged.

anchor graveJust like with the wedding vows, there is a reason why our traditions have bloomed as they have. Looking upon the words “In memory of” and “beloved” (as I’ve already mentioned), I felt as though these emotions had been repeated eloquently and beautifully. Our lives may be short, but the impression of human love goes very deep, the same but different for every family.

What we weren’t expecting was the presence of local traditions. Plymouth is a port town with an old naval history, which is easy to forget when you live here, but this was reflected in the graves and headstones. Not simply because there are so many for young men lost during the world wars but also because of the recurring anchor motif. We saw several carved into stone for sailors and soldiers and we wondered what other traditions may be found in other areas of the UK.

Accomplishments

It’s somewhat uniquely British that we don’t feel it’s “proper” to lord about our accomplishments. The idea that this could carry on unto death seemed, frankly, ridiculous to me but it preyed on my mind. Have you ever seen a gravestone that celebrates the achievements of an individual, beyond being a parent and a friend? I’m not trying to undersell the huge importance of those two relationships: we are social creatures and I believe that the traditions in the above section came from that deep impulse. But still it surprises me that so few traditional graves come with the accomplishments made by the deceased. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find people with titles, you can even find those that wielded power (such as a Mayor etc.) but until recently there was very little movement towards celebrating the working accomplishments of a man or woman in their epitaph.

It’s my personal opinion that the nature of the celebrity changed this somewhat. I don’t mean the likes of film and television but the early celebrities such as Lord Byron and Shakespeare who created their own epitaph knowing that their following would endure post mortum. Today, it’s not unusual for people to travel to the graves of those they admire and idolise and the design of the graves often reflect that. Whitney Houston’s features a carved image of her face in song and the pictured graves below depict two men who’s living passions have been proudly displayed along with the traditional memorial template.

solicitor plymouth graveThat said, as lovely as these examples are there is little indication that this is what everyday families value in their loved one’s epitaph. Wandering around Plymouth’s largest central graveyard, we only found one reference to a job during a human life time (a solicitor which surprised us somewhat). This seems to me to support the idea that our base and social instincts completely override other accomplishments.

In fact, graves appear to have become more personal, more an outlet for the family left behind rather than an official testament to a working life. We saw examples of 2nd person writing  from close family members, where words such as “I miss you Dad” and “I love you always” were carved. This was only on the most modern graves, dating from the 90’s onwards. Before then family relations were loving but stilted, as though talking to a strange or making a formal announcement. These more contemporary, personal and loving announcements belie the British stereotype of us being too wound up to show emotion, some of the most touching memorials and lines came straight from the words of the deceased’s family.

Few people are remembered by their loved ones for the time they spent in the office or at their job. It’s only with the passion that is naturally infused by someone who loves their work (such as with the men above me) that this becomes something worthy of remembrance.

Walking through this graveyard, I didn’t feel sad or mournful, I felt like there was no simpler indication of what really matters when our time is up.

lavender grave

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