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    A Haunter of Churchyards

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    Chapter 35
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    I said a little while ago that when staying at a village I am apt to
    become a haunter of its churchyard; but I go not to it in the spirit of
    our well-beloved Mr. Pecksniff. He, it will be remembered, was
    accustomed to take an occasional turn among the tombs in the graveyard
    at Amesbury, or wherever it was, to read and commit to memory the pious
    and admonitory phrases he found on the stones, to be used later as a
    garnish to his beautiful, elevating talk. The attraction for me, which
    has little to do with inscriptions, was partly stated in the last
    sketch, and I may come to it again by-and-by.

    Nevertheless, I cannot saunter or sit down among these memorials
    without paying some attention to the lettering on them, and always with
    greatest interest in those which time and weather and the corrosive
    lichen have made illegible. The old stones that are no longer visited,
    on which no fresh-gathered flower is ever laid, which mark the last
    resting-places of the men and women who were once the leading members
    of the little rustic community, and are now forgotten for ever, whose
    bones for a century past have been crumbling to dust. And the
    children's children, and remoter descendants of these dead, where are
    they? since one refuses to believe that they inhabit this land any
    longer. Under what suns, then, by what mountains and what mighty
    rivers, on what great green or sun-parched plains and in what roaring
    cities in far-off continents? They have forgotten; they have no memory
    nor tradition of these buried ones, nor perhaps even know the name of
    this village where they lived and died. Yet we believe that something
    from these same dead survives in them--something, too, of the place,
    the village, the soil, an inherited memory and emotion. At all events
    we know that, wheresoever they may be, that their soul is English
    still, that they will hearken to their mother's voice when she calls
    and come to her from the very ends of the earth.

    As to the modern stones with inscriptions made so plain that you can
    read them at a distance of twenty yards, one cultivates the art of not
    seeing them, since if you look attentively at them and read the dull
    formal inscription, the disgust you will experience at their extreme
    ugliness will drive you from the spot, and so cause you to miss some
    delicate loveliness lurking there, like a violet "half hidden from the
    eye." But I need not go into this subject here, as I have had my say
    about it in a well-known book--Hampshire Days.

    The stones I look at are of the seventeenth, eighteenth and first half
    of the nineteenth centuries, for even down to the fifties of last
    century something of the old tradition lingered on, and not all the
    stones were shaped and lettered in imitation of an auctioneer's
    advertisement posted on a barn door.

    In reading the old inscriptions, often deciphered with difficulty after
    scraping away the moss and lichen, we occasionally discover one that
    has the charm of quaintness, or which touches our heart or sense of
    humour in such a way as to tempt us to copy it into a note-book.

    In this way I have copied a fair number, and in glancing over my old
    note-books containing records of my rambles and observations, mostly
    natural history, I find these old epitaphs scattered through them. But
    I have never copied an inscription with the intention of using it. And
    this for the sufficient reason that epitaphs collected in a book do not
    interest me or anyone. They are in the wrong place in a book and cannot
    produce the same effect as when one finds and spells them out on a
    weathered stone or mural tablet out or inside a village church. It is
    the atmosphere--the place, the scene, the associations, which give it
    its only value and sometimes make it beautiful and precious. The stone
    itself, its ancient look, half-hidden in many cases by ivy, and clothed
    over in many-coloured moss and lichen and aerial algae, and the
    stonecutter's handiwork, his lettering, and the epitaphs he revelled
    in--all this is lost when you take the inscription away and print it.
    Take this one, for instance, as a specimen of a fairly good
    seventeenth-century epitaph, from Shrewton, a village on Salisbury
    Plain, not far from Stonehenge:


    E O ED
    R E

    It would not be very interesting to put this in a book:

    Here is my hope till trump shall sound
    And Christ for me doth call,
    Then shall I rise from death to life
    No more to die at all.

    But it was interesting to find it there, to examine the old lettering
    and think perhaps that if you had been standing at the elbow of the old
    lapidary, two and a half centuries ago, you might have given him a
    wrinkle in the economising of space and labour. In any case, to find it
    there in the dim, rich interior of that ancient village church, to view
    it in a religious or reverent mood, and then by-and-by in the dusty
    belfry to stumble on other far older memorials of the same family, and
    finally, coming out into the sunny churchyard, to come upon the same
    name once more in an inscription which tells you that he died in 1890,
    aged 88. And you think it a good record after nine generations, and
    that the men who lie under these wide skies on these open chalk downs
    do not degenerate.

    I have copied these inscriptions for a purpose of my own, just as one
    plucks a leaf or a flower and drops it between the pages of a book he
    is reading to remind him on some future occasion, when by chance he
    finds it again on opening the book at some future time, of the scene,
    the place, the very mood of the moment.

    Now, after all said, I am going to quote a few of my old gleanings from
    gravestones, not because they are good of their kind--my collection
    will look poor and meagre enough compared with those that others have
    made--but I have an object in doing it which will appear presently in
    the comments.

    Always the best epitaphs to be found in books are those composed by
    versifiers for their own and the reading public's amusement, and always
    the best in the collection are the humorous ones.

    The first collection I ever read was by the Spanish poet, Martinez de
    la Rosa, and although I was a boy then, I can still remember one:

    Aqui Fray Diego reposa,
    Jamas hiso otra cosa.

    Which, translated literally, means:

    Here Friar James reposes:
    He never did anything else.

    This does well enough on the printed page, but would shock the mind if
    seen on a gravestone, and perhaps the rarest of all epitaphs are the
    humorous ones. But one is pleased to meet with the unconsciously
    humorous; the little titillation, the smile, is a relief, and does not
    take away the sense of the tragedy of life and the mournful end.

    A good specimen of the unconsciously humorous epitaph is on a stone in
    the churchyard at Maddington, a small village in the Wiltshire Downs,
    dated 1843:

    These few lines have been procured
    To tell the pains which he endured,
    He was crushed to death by the fall
    Of an old mould'ring, tottering wall.
    All ye young people that pass by
    Remember this and breathe a sigh,
    Lord, let him hear thy pard'ning voice
    And make his broken bones rejoice.

    A better one, from the little village of Mylor, near Falmouth, has I
    fancy been often copied:

    His foot it slipped and he did fall,
    Help! help! he cried, and that was all.

    And still a better one I found in the churchyard of St. Margaret's at
    Lynn, to John Holgate, aged 27, who died in 1712:

    He hath gained his port and is at ease,
    And hath escapt ye danger of ye seas,
    His glass is run his life is gone,
    Which to my thought never did no man no wronge.

    That last line is remarkable, for although its ten slow words have
    apparently fallen by chance into that form and express nothing but a
    little negative praise of their subject, they say something more by
    implication. They conceal a mournful protest against the cruelty and
    injustice of his lot, and remind us of the old Italian folk-song, "O
    Barnaby, why did you die?" With plenty of wine in the house and salad
    in the garden, how wrong, how unreasonable of you to die! But even
    while blaming you in so many words, we know, O Barnaby, that the
    decision came not from you, and was an outrage, but dare not say so
    lest he himself should be listening, and in his anger at one word
    should take us away too before our time. It is unconsciously humorous,
    yet with the sense of tears in it.

    But there is no sense of tears in the unconscious humour of the solemn
    or pompous epitaph composed by the village ignoramus.

    A century ago the village idiot was almost always a member of the
    little rustic community, and was even useful to it in two distinct
    ways. He was "God's Fool," and compassion and sweet beneficent
    instinct, or soul growths, flourished the more for his presence; and
    secondly, he was a perpetual source of amusement, a sort of free cinema
    provided by Nature for the children's entertainment. I am not sure that
    his removal has not been a loss to the little rural centres of life.

    Side by side with the village idiot there was the pompous person who
    could not only read a book, but could put whole sentences together and
    even make rhymes, and who on these grounds took an important part in
    the life of the community. He was not only adviser and letter-writer to
    his neighbours, but often composed inscriptions for their gravestones
    when they were dead. But in the best specimen of this kind which I have
    come upon, I feel pretty sure, from internal evidence, that the buried
    man had composed his own epitaph, and probably designed the form of the
    stone and its ornamentation. I found this stone in the churchyard of
    Minturne Magna, in Dorset. The stone was five feet high and four and a
    half broad--a large canvas, so to speak. On the upper half a Tree of
    Knowledge was depicted, with leaves and apples, the serpent wound about
    the trunk, with Adam and Eve standing on either side. Eve is extending
    her arm, with an apple in her open hand, to Adam, and he, foolish man,
    is putting out a hand to take it. Then follows the extraordinary

    Here lyeth the Body
    Of Richard Elambert,
    Late of Holnust, who died
    June 6, in the year 1805, in the
    100 year of his age.
    Neighbours make no stay,
    Return unto the Lord,
    Nor put it off from day to day,
    For Death's a debt ye all must pay.
    Ye knoweth not how soon,
    It may be the next moment,
    Night, morning or noon.
    I set this as a caution
    To my neighbours in rime,
    God give grace that you
    May all repent in time.
    For what God has decreed,
    We surely must obey,
    For when please God to send
    His death's dart into us so keen,
    O then we must go hence
    And be no more here seen.


    Handy lyeth here
    Dianna Elambert,
    Which was my only daughter dear,
    Who died Jan. 10, 1776,
    In the 18th year of her age.

    Poor Diana deserved a less casual word!

    Enough of that kind. The next to follow is the quite plain, sensible,
    narrative inscription, with no pretension to fine diction, albeit in
    rhyme. Oddly enough the most perfect example I have found is in the
    churchyard at Kew, which seems too near to London:

    Here lyith the bodies of Robert and Ann
    Plaistow, late of Tyre, Edghill, in Warwickshire,
    Dyed August 23, 1728.
    At Tyre they were born and bred
    And in the same good lives they led,
    Until they come to married state,
    Which was to them most fortunate.
    Near sixty years of mortal life
    They were a happy man and wife,
    And being so by Nature tyed
    When one fell sick the other dyed,
    And both together laid in dust
    To await the rising of the just.
    They had six children born and bred,
    And five before them being dead,
    Their only then surviving son
    Hath caused this stone for to be done.

    After this little masterpiece I will quote no other in this class.

    After copying some scores of inscriptions, we find that there has
    always been a convention or fashion in such things, and that it has
    been constantly but gradually changing during the last three centuries.
    Very few of the seventeenth century, which are the best, are now
    decipherable, out of doors at all events. In an old graveyard you will
    perhaps find two or three among two or three hundred stones, yet you
    believe that two to three hundred years ago the small space was as
    thickly peopled with stones as now. The two or three or more that have
    not perished are of the very hardest kind of stone, and the old letters
    often show that they were cut with great difficulty. We also find that
    apart from the convention of the age or time, there were local
    conventions or fashions. In some parts of the South of England you find
    numbers of enormous stones five feet high and nearly as broad. This
    mode has long vanished. But you find a resemblance in the inscriptions
    as well. Thus, wherever the Methodists obtained a firm hold on the
    community, you find the spirit of ugliness appearing in the village
    churchyard from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, when the
    old ornate and beautiful stones with figures of winged cherubs bearing
    torches, scattering flowers or blowing trumpets, were the usual
    decorations, giving place to the plain or ugly stone with its square
    ugly lettering and the dull monotonous form of the inscription. "To the
    memory of Mr. Buggins of this parish, who died on February 27th, 1801,
    aged 67." And then, to save trouble and expense, a verse from a hymn,
    or the simple statement that he is asleep in Jesus, or is awaiting the

    I am inclined to blame Methodism for these horrors simply because it
    is, as we know, the cult of ugliness, but there may have been another
    cause for the change; it was perhaps to some extent a reaction against
    the stilted, the pompous and silly epitaph which one finds most common
    in the first half of the eighteenth century.

    Here is a perfect specimen which I found at St. Just, in Cornwall, to a
    Martin Williams, 1771:

    Life's but a snare, a Labyrinth of Woe
    Which wretched Man is doomed to struggle through.
    To-day he's great, to-morrow he's undone,
    And thus with Hope and Fear he blunders on,
    Till some disease, or else perhaps old Age
    Calls us poor Mortals trembling from the Stage.

    An amusing variant of one of the commoner forms of that time appears at
    Lelant, a Cornish village near St. Ives:

    What now you are so once was me,
    What now I am that you will be,
    Therefore prepare to follow me.

    No less remarkable in grammar as in the identical or perfect rhyme in
    the first and third lines. The author or adapter could have escaped
    this by making the two first the expression of the person buried
    beneath, and the third the comment from the outsider, as follows:

    Therefore prepare to follow _she_,

    It was a woman, I must say.

    This form of epitaph is quite common, and I need not give here more
    examples from my notes, but the better convention coming down from the
    preceding age goes on becoming more and more modified all through the
    eighteenth, and even to the middle of the nineteenth century.

    The following from St. Erth, a Cornish village, is a most suitable
    inscription on the grave of an old woman who was a nurse in the same
    family from 1750 to 1814:

    Time rolls her ceaseless course; the race of yore
    That danced our infancy on their knee
    And told our wondering children Legends lore
    Of strange adventures haped by Land and Sea,
    How are they blotted from the things that be!

    There are many beautiful stones and appropriate inscriptions during all
    that long period, in spite of the advent of Mr. Buggins and his
    ugliness, and the charm and pathos is often in a phrase, a single line,
    as in this from St. Keverne, 1710, a widow's epitaph on her husband:

    Rest here awhile, thou dearest part of me.

    But let us now get back another century at a jump, to the Jacobean and
    Caroline period. And for these one must look as a rule in interiors,
    seeing that, where exposed to the weather, the lettering, if not the
    whole stone, has perished. Perhaps the best specimen of the grave
    inscription, lofty but not pompous, of that age which I have met with
    is on a tablet in Ripon Cathedral to Hugh de Ripley, a locally
    important man who died in 1637:

    Others seek titles to their tombs
    Thy deeds to thy name prove new wombes
    And scutcheons to deck their Herse
    Which thou need'st not like teares and vers.
    If I should praise thy thriving witt
    Or thy weighed judgment serving it
    Thy even and thy like straight ends
    Thy pitie to God and to friends
    The last would still the greatest be
    And yet all jointly less than thee.
    Thou studiedst conscience more than fame
    Still to thy gathered selfe the same.
    Thy gold was not thy saint nor welth
    Purchased by rapine worse than stealth
    Nor did'st thou brooding on it sit
    Not doing good till death with it.
    This many may blush at when they see
    What thy deeds were what theirs should be.
    Thou'st gone before and I wait now
    T'expect my when and wait my how
    Which if my Jesus grant like thine
    Who wets my grave's no friend of mine.

    Rather too long for my chapter, but I quote it for the sake of the last
    four lines, characteristic of that period, the age of conceits, of the
    love of fantasticalness, of Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan.

    A jump from Ripon of 600 odd miles to the little village of Ludgvan,
    near Penzance, brings us to a tablet of nearly the same date, 1635, and
    an inscription conceived in the same style and spirit. It is
    interesting, on account of the name of Catherine Davy, an ancestress of
    the famous Sir Humphry, whose marble statue stands before the Penzance
    Market House facing Market Jew Street.

    Death shall not make her memory to rott
    Her virtues were too great to be forgott.
    Heaven hath her soul where it must still remain
    The world her worth to blazon forth her fame
    The poor relieved do honour and bless her name.
    Earth, Heaven, World, Poor, do her immortalize
    Who dying lives and living never dies.

    Here is another of 1640:

    Here lyeth the body of my Husband deare
    Whom next to God I did most love and fear.
    Our loves were single: we never had but one
    And so I'll be although that thou art gone.

    Which means that she has no intention of marrying again. Why have I set
    this inscription down? Solely to tell how I copied it. I saw it on a
    brass in the obscure interior of a small village church in Dorset, but
    placed too high up on the wall to be seen distinctly. By piling seven
    hassocks on top of one another I got high up enough to read the date
    and inscription, but before securing the name I had to get quickly down
    for fear of falling and breaking my neck. The hassocks had added five
    feet to my six.

    The convention of that age appears again in the following inscription
    from a tablet in Aldermaston church, in that beautiful little Berkshire
    village, once the home of the Congreves:

    Like borne, like new borne, here like dead they lie,
    Four virgin sisters decked with pietie
    Beauty and other graces which commend
    And made them like blessed in the end.

    Which means they were very much like each other, and were all as pure
    in heart as new-born babes, and that they all died unmarried.

    Where the epitaph-maker of that time occasionally went wrong was in his
    efforts to get his fantasticalness in willy-nilly, or in a silly play
    upon words, as in the following example from the little village of
    Boyton on the Wylie river, on a man named Barnes, who died in 1638:

    Stay Passenger and view a stack of corne
    Reaped and laid up in the Almighty's Barne
    Or rather Barnes of Choyce and precious grayne
    Put in his garner there still to remaine.

    But in the very next village--that of Stockton--I came on the best I
    have found of that time. It is, however, a little earlier in time,
    before fantasticalness came into fashion, and in spirit is of the
    nobler age. It is to Elizabeth Potecary, who died in 1590.

    Here she interred lies deprived of breath
    Whose light of virtue once on Earth did shyne
    Who life contemned ne feared ghostly death
    Whom worlde ne worldlye cares could cause repine
    Resolved to die with hope in Heaven placed
    Her Christ to see whom living she embraced
    In paynes most fervent still in zeal most strong
    In death delighting God to magnifye
    How long will thou forgett me Lord! this cry
    In greatest pangs was her sweet harmonye
    Forgett thee? No! he will not thee forgett
    In books of Lyfe thy name for aye is set.

    And with Elizabeth Potecary, that dear lady dead these three centuries
    and longer, I must bring this particular Little Thing to an end.

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