Books of the dead

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:







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.

maggs 2

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.


24 thoughts on “Books of the dead

  1. Yes I love looking at older gravestone, so really enjoyed this post. My 4 x grandmother approx 1850, was a midwife, but became a cholera nurse when her 7 youngest children died of it. Remarkably the eldest and only daughter left, had been born and raised on the IOW until 12, her siblings were born in Gosport, not the healthiest places to live at that time. This daughter, went on to have 14 children and everyone of them lived to be over 70 ! By the way 4 x grandmother lived to 103, amazingly 🙂

      1. Oh yes, for certain, got her determination, she used go out to the soldiers wives at Fort Brookhurst in Gosport as the fort midwife, when she was ninety and everyone called her Granny Cotmen. I would have loved to have met her and some of my other female ancestors, they seem to have been be a feisty lot 🙂

          1. Yes I think you are right and she had been a widow for years, her husband was in the Navy and was lost at sea, not long after the children had died. I think there was no choice, work or the workhouse.

          1. earthbalm

            I think I lost it in a house move. There was also a series of audio recordings to accompany the written dissertation and made at several graveyards across the UK.

  2. Some of the gravestones that are most distressing in the old churchyard on the marshes near us in Pontarddulais (St Teilo’s Church was transferred and rebuilt in St Fagan’s) are those with no inscription to be seen. Whether they have an inscription is not known (to me at least) as the graves are so small and the head stones so tiny with only the tops rising from the surrounding grass. There are too many of them!

    1. The high rate of infant mortality in earlier times is really distressing to contemplate. I’ve also read archaeological reports on Welsh Dark Age cemeteries where not only were a significant proportion — virtually half in some cases — concerned with child burials but also many individuals had injuries associated with hard labour, indicating that most communities on the Celtic fringe didn’t live in any kind of golden age where they were ‘at one’ with nature.

  3. I must say, I love reading gravestones, though inevitably the stories are often tragic. There was a plot near where we used to live in Chorlton in Manchester. A family who had three children and the mother die within weeks of each other, presumably from an outbreak of disease. Unimginable. Being the father who has to watch his entire family wasting and dying one by one, and puting all to a secret plan of God’s.
    I’m always intrigued by the people buried together with different names – a few weeks ago we were looking round a grave yard and in a (presumably expensive) stone tomb were a gruop of people with three different surnames – remarriages? A daughter who was buried with her parents not her husband? So many stories, Chris.
    A sad but fascinating post

    1. Only further research can illuminate the stark stories outlined on gravestones, and as there are usually so many in a churchyard it will probably take a dedicated group or society to satisfactorily unravel the complex strands of lives lived. I’ve just become a Friend of the local archive as its funding was recently withdrawn — perhaps I’ll learn more about these families in the next little while.

      In the meantime I think I’ll be looking at non-biblical epitaphs in the hopes of finding literary gems — or at least the odd amuse-bouche for the mind!

      1. Yes, research is the only way to unravel the truth and even then with very early tombs there are ofen scant records to be had.
        Have you ever heard of Eyam in Derbyshire? The graveyard by the little church there is fascinating, if tragic. In 1666 the town received a box of cloth from London infected with the plague. When they realised what was happening to their population, instead of fleeing, the villagers isolated themselves, letting no one in or out to save the disease from spreading. Many people died of course and the church yard is filled with them, the tombs carved with skull and crossed bones. Terrifically brave.
        Will look forward to any other ‘grave’ posts from you

  4. Lovely post. I love old graveyards too. I live in an area that was an early settlement here in Aus and it’s heart-rending to read the stories of children’s deaths in the one family, one after the other in the space of a few months – presumably in epidemics. It’s hard for us in these cushioned times to imagine how people just picked themselves up and kept going, but they did.

    Notre Dame De Pareloup in Mazan, near Carpentras, is a fascinating place – a 12th century chapel on a hill surrounded by the graves of residents stretching back centuries.

    1. Those early settlers — forced or voluntary — to Aus seem to have done well to have survived at all, given the conditions they faced. (I’m reminded by the story of Mary Bryant that escape on the open sea was often seen as preferable to contined existence in a penal settlement.)

      I’m intrigued by the Mazan site you mention — I must delve deeper now!

  5. When we were little an abandoned graveyard was one of our unlikely playgrounds. Sometimes we’d tire of playing batman and cowboys and Indians and we’d sit and read the stones and invent stories of their lives. It’s a habit I haven’t grown out of.

    1. It’s clear you’re a born storyteller, Alastair — or perhaps story shaper would be more applicable! I find graveyards oddly comforting — I don’t understand the fictional trope that declares cemeteries are creepy places where ghosts and the undead are ready to do unspeakable things to you.

      1. We never found them frightening nor did we have anything particularly spooky. I’ve always found gravestones (like you do) as historical documents and personal statements.

  6. Two literary connections come immediately to mind. First, of course, is Gaiman’s Graveyard Book. Second, and a bit more obscure, is L M Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, in which Anne Shirley attends college in Nova Scotia (probably Halifax). Her first lodgings are across the street from a cemetery, where she often goes to cheer up. The tombstones there have similar epitaphs that hint at the tragedies, and loves, of lives long gone.

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