Friday, 17 August 2007


Just outside the town where I live there is something called The Church-in-the-Wood, because that is what it is. It has a churchyard—or rather, at three acres, more of a necropolis—and my wife and I strolled through it happily in yesterday’s sunshine looking at three hundred years of headstones (actually more but the earlier ones are mostly illegible).
What struck us forcibly was that they stopped making beautiful ones soon after the nineteenth century began. This one from 1795, recording the deaths of Timothy and Mary Jannings, is fairly typical of the eighteenth century, with its lovely typeface and the simple but adequate wording (sadly not visible in my rotten photo).

As the nineteenth century wore on people were less inclined merely to die, preferring to pass on, fall asleep or rest in the arms of Jesus. A record of name, date and age was no longer enough; there had to be whole lines of mawkish or pious banalities and unconvincing encomia which today evoke only indifference or a cynical smile. Where did they bury the not-particularly-loving fathers and the not-really-very-devoted wives?

But here is a relatively recent stone we found which strikes at the heart, unusual in that the cause of death is given; this was in itself an unusual one in those days. After all these years it still speaks to us plainly and sincerely of the anguish and bitterness of the bereavement. Peter would have been 77 now.

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