Friday, June 17, 2011


Old cemeteries fascinate me. Apart from being havens for wildlife, they are a wonderful resource. The parish church for our village was founded in 411 AD and has been a site of worship for sixteen hundred years. St Melior was supposed to have arrived on a millstone. Other saints in Ireland and Brittany are also associated with this mode of travel. Perhaps it’s the nature of being a saint that you have to do things the hard way. But would people have believed any less in their preaching had they arrived in – say - a coracle? To have safely crossed the Irish sea, Bay of Biscay or English Channel in a tiny circular one-man craft made of animal skins stretched over a wicker frame would surely have been a miracle in itself, and far more believable.
In the older parts of the churchyard large marble or granite tombs are the final resting place for several generations of the same family. The surnames on these tombs reveal who was important in the area over different centuries. Sons were often given the same first name as their father and grandfather. These range from Alfred to Zephaniah.
The ages inscribed on the headstones tell their own stories. Many children died in infancy. Women died during or shortly after childbirth. Ours is a fishing village and many men were lost at sea.
Then there is a memorial commemorating men from the village who died in two world wars. A short distance away is another.

Erected in 1872, this lists the names of 53 boys aged between 15 and 17 who were training for a naval career aboard the wooden ship HMS Ganges moored for 33 years off Mylor Naval Dockyard (now Mylor Yacht Harbour) The majority of the boys died from illnesses like measles, scarlatina and ‘flu; preventable now but too often fatal then. But 8 died from falls (from the spars or rigging) or from drowning. As a mother with two sons and three grandsons I can never pass this memorial without a lump in my throat.

But though this graveyard holds stories of great tragedy, there is also unintentional humour. Near one of the main paths is the headstone of a man who drowned while fishing off rocks. The inscription reads:

His end was all most sudden
As if the mandate came direct from Heaven.
His foot did slip, and he did fall.
Help, help, he cried. And that was all.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I do agree with you about finding churchyards fascinating, particularly for names.

In the north of Scotland, where my parents used to live, there were some very atmospheric old churchyards. I noticed that many gravestones had female names which added 'ina' to the male form. Some were fine, like Robina, which I used for the heroine of 'Highland Summer'. Others, like Angusina, Williamina, or even Murdina (from Murdo) I personally found somewhat uneuphonious.

Historical Romance Author said...

I love graveyards and tombstones too. They are a wonderful misture of pathos, social history unintentional humour and surprises.

Jane Jackson said...

Thanks, Elizabeth and HRA, I'm glad you too find graveyards interesting. Ours is also a wild-life haven. One very touching new addition is a designated Quiet Corner for the parents of stillborn babies or those who died soon after birth.

Stephen said...

I was brought up only a couple of miles from Highgate Cemetery which has its fill of famous occupants, but for me it is the monuments themselves, rather than the names upon them, that give it its gothic atmosphere - in many cases the vaults and mausolea were bought in the expectation use over many generations, only for them to be abandoned almost unused, and soon forgotten.

Anonymous said...

I like visiting graveyards and studying tombstones - so much to be discovered there! Lots of untold stories too!

There's a graveyard museum not far from where I live - a collector of iron crosses has put them up for people to look at. Your poem reminds me of some of the epitaphs to be seen there.

If you can read German, here is a link: