Of course stories aren’t just to be read in the pages of books, magazines or papers; they can be found written wherever one chooses to interpret words strung together in phrases, sentences and chapters. And many such can be sought in the churchyards, graveyards and cemeteries of our villages, towns and cities, in memorial plaques on walls or embedded in church floors, and on markers placed in isolated spots to indicate the resting places of beloved pets or even Dark Age personages.
I like browsing in churchyards, especially early ones. Gravestones from the Victorian, Georgian and even earlier periods frequently have epitaphs and inscriptions which are more interesting, even more curious than modern examples. Pious doggerel, classical epigrams, Biblical allusions all have their place on these books of the dead, and very occasionally we have fragments of a tragic tale, as in the two instances I’ve culled from the memorials surrounding Crickhowell’s parish church of St Edmund, Powys, Wales.
Here’s a particularly distressing story:
To | the Memory of | CAROLINE, Daug[hter] | of William Gameson | of Tredegar Ironwork | who died Nov[ember] 9, 1826 | Aged 17 Months. | ALSO William Rowland | Son of the above nam’d | WILLIAM GAMESON | who died June 27, 1833 | Aged 11 Months.
ALSO | in Memory of | MARY, Daugh[hter] | of the above named | who died June 30. 1841 | Aged 7 Years. | Also in Memory of | JOHN, Son of the | aforesaid William | and Ann Gameson | who died Nov[ember] 12. | 1 8 5 3 : | Aged 32 Years
Is there anything more heartbreaking than hearing about children who predecease their parents? Whether the deaths are perinatal (as with Caroline and William Rowland whose deaths are announced in the left lunette) or in childhood (as with Mary, or in later life in the case of John, both noted on the right lunette) — pity William and Ann who had to witness the events and then live in grief. We aren’t told the causes of death of the three youngest — possibly from rheumatic fever or typhoid fever, both of which were rife in the 19th century — nor do we know how John died (cholera was still prevalent in the 1850s), though a trawl through the town’s archives might yield further details.
Here is a slightly later gravestone, also noting several deaths in a family. While telling a different narrative, one indicating rather greater social mobility, it too reiterates family grief.
Biblical quotes accompany the stark details of those who were buried in this plot:
IN THE MEMORY OF | MARIA, | DAUGHTER OF | NOAH & ANN MAGGS | WHO DIED AT BRECON | 4TH OCT[OBER] 1869 | AGED 20.
ALSO OF THE SAID | NOAH MAGGS | WHO DIED 5TH Nov[ember] 1869 | AGED 58.
AND OF LOUISA THEIR DAUGH[TER] | WHO DIED AT TOTTERDOWN BRISTOL | 6TH NOV[EMBER] 1873 | AGED 20
“THE LORD GAVE AND THE LORD HATH | TAKEN AWAY. BLESSED BE THE NAME OF | THE LORD.”
ALSO OF ANN, WIFE OF THE SAID | NOAH MAGGS, | WHO DIED 6TH DEC[EMBER] 1887 | AGED 78 YEARS.
WE ALL DO FADE AS A LEAF
Brecon is a dozen miles or so from Crickhowell, but this is where Maria has ended her days, presumably as yet unmarried. A scant month later Noah the father dies, whether from a similar cause (illness or accident, perhaps) or from a broken heart we cannot tell.
Ann, the mother — also written as Anne — must still be numb from this double blow when four years later Louisa, another daughter, dies in a Bristol suburb over the Severn sea in England; she too is aged 20. Can things get worse for her, with husband and two daughters on the cusp of womanhood taken away within a short space of time?
But it has already got worse. An adjacent tombstone tells us that Mary Anne, “the beloved daughter of Noah & Anne Maggs of this town died 26th Dec[ember] 1864 aged 27 years.” Awful to realise that three daughters and a partner have gone in less than ten years; Anne’s only consolation is that her son Joseph survives till her own death in 1887; like his mother he then lives to a ripe age, not dying till 1924, aged 86.
The Maggs family was evidently wealthy enough to afford two graves and their memorials in St Edmund’s churchyard, one for Mary Anne in 1864 and another for Maria in 1869. Perhaps with Noah dying soon after Maria their fortunes were significantly diminished for one plot to have to serve for four and the other to serve for two. That their Christian devotion was not diminished is evidenced by the extracts from both the New Testament and the Old proclaiming their patience and faith; the flaking surface of the 1864 memorial hasn’t yet erased the sentiments from the Epistle to the Romans or the sayings of Job:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.