Thursday, 30 August 2018

My love of churchyards

Over the last two years I have been mostly preoccupied with studying for a post graduate diploma in parish church studies with the University of York. As to why I came to take this path is a mixture of interest in the history of England of which the church played such an important factor and my involvement in a medieval group that took me on trails of stories in stone and gargoyles, of relics in cases and architecture that tells of the relationship between the people and their beliefs.

 My main focus has been on churchyards, drifting through swathes of grass to read lichen encrusted gravestones, poring over lettering cut centuries ago and learning of the tales that accompany them. As a child I  was perhaps a little spooky and enjoyed walking through the local graveyard and did not find it weird or strange, although I did buy myself a book called the Fireside Book of Death which I’m sure my mother raised her eyebrows at. However, it’s been a long standing relationship, the departed and I, so applying academic study to it has been exciting.

When I talk to people about my interest both in real life and online, I receive a mixed response- some people are fascinated, some consider me ghoulish and gothic…..perhaps a little part of me is. But really churchyards are places of such beauty and art that tells the story of our ancestors. Dark tourism is increasingly popular with tours of cemeteries such as the local one I did that I wrote about the intriguing showman character I had learnt about and of course the  immense London cemeteries offer tours as well as holding small classical concerts and other cultural events in these highly atmospheric spaces. Also the death positive movement is gathering momentum, lets not view death as taboo, sweep it under the carpet, lets enable the discussion to be more positive, think of the celebrations of the Mexican Day of the Dead and how that link to the dead remains.

Autumn graveyard

 As I walk around churchyards and see the new graves and the fresh wreaths, read the notes and see the modern tokens left, small cherubs and trinkets, I do feel sad. It must be hard to know what to do and who to ask about many of the practicalities around the loss of a family member of friend. This useful guide by SunLife provides help around what to do when somebody dies, answering key questions to assist in what to do. I always pause as I’m wandering about the graveyard but more often than not I’m looking amongst the older part of the area seeking the stones set into the ground hundreds of years ago.
autumn church

My main interest are 18th century graves with their memento mori messages and symbolism of death with almost comical looking skulls and angels such as the ones in the Nottinghamshire area, known as the Belvoir angels with their swirly eyes and curly locks. The simplicity of rustic graves intrigue me the most with sometimes crudely cut lettering and mistakes or oddly spaced letters. It becomes a moment of anticipation as I walk through churchyard gates, what will I find. Sometimes the graveyard has been reordered over time and the stones are moved to the edges or stacked by the church. Regardless, each ones tells of so many things. It may tell of the occupation of the deceased, of their social standing in a time gone by and the tragedy of families lives lost so young is there to see. Many times I have used this information to find out more in the local history archives, it’s a satisfying exercise to learn of the life from the stone.
sunset in the churchyard

Churchyards are also places where I like to take many photographs. There is something very beautiful about rows and rows of tombstones and memorials, angels reaching up high and cherubs scattering flowers, the grand Victorian grave flamboyancy that reflects their views around death at the time. Then to the uniformity and sombreness of  war graves, peaceful white and silently stood. Wherever I go, I pop into the churchyard and gain something; sometimes a chat with a churchwarden or a brush with nature as some are managed for conservation…..a great place to spot butterflies. Sometimes a place for a quiet moment and a flask of tea on a sunny day or a winter’s walk through the frost. If you’ve never considered a graveyard as a place to go on this side of the mortal plain, well do give it a go and let me know what you find, whether it’s a beautiful place of sanctuary buzzing with wildlife or an austere setting of catacombs and Victorian eccentricities. 
bluebell churchyard


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