A FEW years ago, some friends wanted to put an epitaph on their mother’s gravestone in which they called her “mum” – because that was what they called her. They did not call her “mother” and they did not think of her by her Christian names, although those would have been included on the stone. The vicar refused. It was not “appropriate” – an over-used word that is an excuse for narrow-mindedness, political correctness or a wish to block anyone from doing anything that might depart from what the speaker considers the accepted norm. At a time when you are feeling sad and vulnerable, as they were, having lost their much-loved mother, it was one obstacle too much and they were both bitterly distressed.
Similarly, many churchyard and graveyard administrations nowadays are tediously prescriptive about the choice of stone – only certain sizes, shapes and even colours are permitted. This is often dictated by the perhaps understandable but deeply frustrating requirements of maintenance and management, given that most parish or parochial councils have limited funds and limited staff to maintain the area around graves.
There is of course an argument that “management” is the last thing a churchyard needs, since wildlife loves old stones, ancient trees and uncut grass. An appropriate quotation, from St Matthew’s Gospel, might be “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.”
How fortunate that so many vicars and churchwardens in the past did not feel constrained to impose a corporate style on the epitaphs of their parishioners, or we would have been denied a rich resource of social change, humour and valuable material for researchers into family or local history.
Writing epitaphs used to be a proper literary form – poets and philosophers were commissioned to memorialise the great, the good and the self-regarding; lesser mortals were remembered by family and friends; some were immortalised for their faults and foibles, others for their virtues or strengths.
Some are the briefest epigrams, others are majestic odes. Some are scurrilous, some are pithy, some idolise the dear departed, some excoriate him (or her).
Death may be depicted as a thief in the night … “When Vere fought Death, arm’d with his Sword and Shield, Death was afraid to meet him in the Field; But when his Weapons he had laid aside, Death like a Coward strook him, and he dy’d” (Sir Francis Vere, died 1609).
A solemn (but distinctly humourless) epitaph on a grave in Hammersmith reads: “Praises on Tombs are vainly spent. A good Name is a Monument.”
In Bakewell, there is a memorial to one Robert Lowe, who died in 1853 aged 37: “In the prime of life And the vigour of his days, He was suddenly called from A close connection with the Church Militant to join The Church Triumphant.”
Damning with faint praise is the order of the day for a former parish clerk at Hull: “In memory of John Stone, Parish Clerk 41 years, Excellent in his way, Buried here 26 May 1727 Aged 78.”
Small tragedies abound in churchyards everywhere – children dying before their fifth birthday, whole families perishing in epidemics, and women dying in childbirth: “Sixteen years a maiden, One twelve Months a wife, One half hour a mother, And then I Lost my life.”
Pity poor Margaret Robinson, who probably did not take comfort in her lack of beauty: “This Maid no Elegance of Form possessed, No earthly Love defiled her sacred Breast, Hence free she lived from the Deceiver Man: Heaven meant it as a Blessing. She was plain.”
There is a wry and honest humour in the epitaph of Elizabeth Ireland of Ashburton: “Here I lie, at the chancel door. Here I lie because I’m poor. The farther in, the more you pay: Here lie I as warm as they.”
But wit can’t save you, as is noted on the Westminster Abbey memorial to the Restoration polymath, playwright, spy and wit Mrs Aphra Behn: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.”
I don’t plan on having a gravestone (I’d rather have an oak tree over my ashes), but my mother, who had a sharp sense of humour, always promised that if I went before her, she would immortalise my perpetual lateness with the epitaph: “She was always going to – and finally she did.”