AT a time when a lavish expenditure on "memorials" of various kinds has taken place, we shall do well if we consider the origin of a very old custom.
When we have stripped any one of our funeral observances of its crape and tinsel--those graveclothes of convention in which they have been preserved and embalmed--we shall find very little that is worthy of continuance.
Any excessive manifestation of grief is the outcome of self-pity and disbelief in a spiritual existence. The wearing of "doole," the funeral procession and other such ceremonial observances, have their origin in a vulgar pride of estate and an inherited dread of revengeful spirits.
So, too, we shall find that a passion for erecting memorials to all and sundry has little more to commend it.
In the early days of commercial prosperity in this country we have seen how the successful trader hustled his spiritual or social superior in the graveyard to such an extent that he fled for sanctuary into the neighbouring churches; nor was he allowed to remain long in this favoured position before the wealthy merchant bought his way in also.
Pushed to extremity with the trader in full cry, a chase ensued round the walls of the church to the final place of privilege at the very steps of the altar, where saint and sinner could do no more than mingle their dust. Yet there was a further opportunity for self-aggrandizement, and we may be assured that it was not neglected. Competition started in the erection of elaborate memorials. Every degree of society went one better than its predecessors, whilst those who remained crowded out in the burying places, not to be outdone in their desire for a public recognition of the achievements of their dead, gradually left the simple green mounds which had sufficiently covered the more worthy remains of their ancestors, and on a rising tide of prosperity advanced step by step from wood to stone, and from stone to marble, building monuments larger and more vulgar and ostentatious each time that Nature provided them with the opportunity of exalting the family name.
To see this madness at its climax we have to go no farther than the nearest cemetery, packed with columns, pillars, crosses, urns and railings, as closely as the bristles on the back of a hedgehog.
For paucity of invention, vulgarity of conception and feeble craftsmanship--for lack of effect, collective or individual, for unsuitability and costliness--it cannot be outdone. Perhaps there is nothing which we shall hand down to future generations more utterly damning to our intelligence or artistic pretensions than the enduring monuments we have erected to our dead.
We find the early Christian Church building shrines in which to preserve the venerated remains of her saints and martyrs, and we may be sure that the saints and the martyrs would be the very last to make provision for any such memorial to their own honour. At the most they would have desired a small stone, asking for the prayers of the faithful.
The object that the Church had in view was to perpetuate the memory of those of her community whose life was recognized as full of virtues, and as such, worthy of emulation.
In like manner the Romans perpetuated the memory of their great warriors and citizens.
This was all very admirable as long as it was regulated by an authority competent to judge to whom posthumous honours should be paid.
The King inherits with his office the power to confer titles, and to raise the commoner to the ranks of nobility. We can well imagine if the right to confer such honours was common to all who considered that the dignity of their family justified the distinction, then, in a very short time, we should all be lords or dukes, and such titles would cease to have any special significance. The abuse of the once honourable title of esquire is an example.
In this manner the erection of a memorial for the perpetuation of a name without any authority, stands for nothing more than the personal and biased opinion of an individual who has enough money to gratify the pretensions of his family.
In pre-Reformation days we find large sums of money spent to keep green the memory of the dead, but in a spirit of humility rather than of self-advertisement.
Those, indeed, who had committed some outrage on society were often the first to lavish money on memorials of one sort or another, in order to gain the prayers of such as would benefit by their liberality.
"Pray for the soul of ________" is the perpetual form of inscription in stone or brass on the tombstones in the Middle Ages. Munificence in the provision of mourning garments, jewellery, gifts of money, food and the foundation and endowment of churches, chapels and charitable institutions was at one time very common, for it claimed as a first consideration the assurance of a lasting memory, and a place in the prayers of future generations.
Such of these institutions as have escaped the greed of those who often used sectarian differences as an excuse for robbery, still celebrate their "founder's day." If this annual festival is not kept exactly in the spirit in which the patron would have desired, some thoughts of affection at least must go outwards if not upwards to those who made such good use of the riches with which they had been entrusted.
"A great man's memory may outlive his life by half a year, but by'r Lady he must build churches then," says Hamlet.
Three separate reasons have impelled the erection of monuments to the dead. First, a belief that the body dwells or sleeps in the place prepared for it. Secondly, to mark the spot where a person of some special attainments has been buried, in which case a suitable inscription is provided, setting forth the claims of the deceased to public recognition for the edification of future generations. Thirdly, the provision of a stone or tablet asking the prayers of co-religionists for a departed soul.
We have examples of all these methods in this country. Many of the ancient barrows offer ample evidence of the once common practice of making food offerings to the dead. The pagan (as well as the Christian) mode of honouring the great by a recital of their claims as pattern lives is well illustrated by various Roman remains which still exist in this country, notably at Colchester, where there is a finely sculptured stone bearing the effigy of a Roman centurion, clad in richly decorated armour, and holding a staff (the symbol of his authority) in his hand. Beneath this figure the following inscription is engraved:
"Marcus Favonius, the good natured (or courteous) son of Marcus of the Tribe of Pollia, a centurion of the twentieth legion. Verecundus and Novicas, his freedmen, placed this (memorial). He lies here." The work has been pronounced by Hubner to be probably of the age of Vespian.
Despite the ruthless iconoclast many examples yet remain of the pre-Reformation memorial.
What of the modern graveyard on which we spend countless thousands of pounds yearly?
Surely it is optimistic to suppose that our present standard of moral excellence is so high that all these labyrinths of stone commemorate lives so noble and deeds so worthy, that for the public edification they should be thus immortalized. Were we to do so unusual a thing as to walk in a cemetery for the purpose of gathering lessons from the deeds of the dead, we might be deeply impressed by the recital of their sanctity--of indulgent husbands, loving fathers and saintly children buried there, apparently leaving behind them a world broken and desolated by the tragedy of their departure.
We are reminded of a certain pious individual, whose expression was likened to a hymn--so that people who saw it on week-days wondered what it looked like on Sunday. Conversely we may ruminate on the solid and unexpected virtues of our fellow citizens "as advertised," and wonder what they were like on a week-day, but it is hard to believe with so much yeast of perfection, the whole lump of humanity has not long since been leavened.
It will not surprise us to find the religious sentiments of a generation expressed by the inscriptions on their tombstones.
Several admirable books have been written on epitaphs, but only so far as they are useful as types shall we quote from the almost inexhaustible sources in our churches and burial-places, which anyone with a little interest in the matter may easily collect?
The following epitaph well illustrates the pre-Reformation idea of giving to charity or supplying the needs of the Church with a view to being remembered after death. It comes from Holm-next-the-Sea, Norfolk (early fourteenth century).
"Henry Notyngham and hys wyffe lyne here
Yat maden this chirche stepull and quere
Two vestments and belles they made also
Christ hem save therefore ffro wo
Ande to bringe hem soules to Chris at heven
Sayth Pater and ave with Mylde Steven."
The constant formula, "Pray for the soul of _____" or "Jesu Mercy" of the pre-Reformation inscription, was forsaken after that event in favour of a much more confident style, which remains more or less the pattern which we follow to-day.
The following, taken from an inscription in the parish church of Rye, Sussex, is only one of endless examples which might be quoted.
"Trust to his word, a friend sincere,
From every vicious folly clear,
In all his dealings what he gained
Was truly honestly obtained.
He ne'er through life the poor did grind,
Nor any owing him confined;
Peace he maintained with all his neighbours,
And well paid all men for their labours.
Do as he did, God will you save,
And cause you happy from the grave."
These claims are far reaching, but perhaps not so inclusive as those expressed on another stone to be seen in the same place:
"Sacred to the memory of Ann Maria Stonham,
Who died September 20th, 1846, aged 63.
Ye that would learn her worth who sleeps below,
Read Virtue's pages through from end to end,
Leave not a word unmarked, and thou will know,
The virtues that adorned a valued friend."
Sometimes the virtues of the deceased are commemorated with rather curious frankness. The following appears on a tomb in Bunhill Fields:
DAME MARY PAGE,
Wife of Sir Gregory Page, Bart.,
died March 11th, 1728, in her 56th year.
In 67 months she was tapped 66 times
240 gallons of water drawn without ever
repining at her case or ever fearing the
In the eighteenth century, when religion in this country had sunk to the lowest possible ebb, we shall naturally find the effect upon the tombstone. From the pompous recital of personal qualities and achievements we have epitaphs which vary from the jocular to the frankly obscene.
On the spot where the hideous statue of William IV now stands, facing London Bridge (which he opened), once stood a celebrated hostel known as The Boar's Head Tavern. Here it was that one John Preston served as a potman, and we select the inscription on his vine-covered tombstone in the churchyard of St. Magnus, the Martyr, as typical of the doggerel of that period (1730).
Late 'Drawer' at The Boar's Head Tavern
Bacchus to give this toping world surprise
Produced one sober son and here he lies
Though nursed amongst full hogsheads, he defyd
The charms of wine and every vice besides
Oh, reader, if to justice thou'rt inclined
Keep honest Preston daily in thy mind.
He drew good wine, took care to fill his pots
Had sundry virtues that outweighed his faults
You who on Bacchus have the like dependence,
Pray copy Bob in measure and attendance."
A favourite form of epitaph about this time was one which played on the name of the deceased. An amusing example of this is contained in the story told of Jerrold the wit, who expressed an opinion that a good epitaph should contain no more than two words, including the name of the deceased. Charles Knight, who was present when the remark was made, at once handed Jerrold a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked him to write his (Knight's epitaph) with these limitations. Jerrold took the paper and wrote, "Good night."
Sometimes the humour is not intentional, as in the case of the widow, who after much thought and consultation with her friends, caused the following to be engraved on her husband's tomb:
"Rest in peace--until we meet again."
It is not without significance that the eighteenth century tombstone very rarely bore any cross or other Christian symbol. The skull and crossbones, urns and fat cherubs were the motives generally employed. On the other hand, the shape of the stone was often very admirable, and the carving, and especially the lettering, infinitely better than anything produced to-day.
We have been considering the epitaphs of the orthodox Christian types, but if it be true that the religious sentiments of any period are reflected by the inscriptions in the graveyard, it will also follow that the free-thinker, the materialist and the philosopher will express their particular views by the same means. Some of these are very beautiful, freed as they are from the shackles of convention. Perhaps the best known comes from Hull.
"Here lie I, Master Elginbrod,
Have mercy on my soul, O God."
So far it might be one of the ordinary pious expressions of pre-Reformation date, were it not for the dramatic challenge of the concluding lines:
"As I would have if I were God,
And thou were Master Elginbrod."
The frequent allusion to "sleep," which is a common form, is worth some little investigation.
W. J. Locke quotes the following from a German churchyard, which is beautiful in its frank acknowledgment of human frailty: "I will awake, Oh Christ, when thou callest me, but let me sleep awhile--for I am very weary." '
This is quoted because it says honestly and in bold words what so many other inscriptions hesitatingly suggest, namely, that the dead are sleeping in a physical sense in their graves. We have noted that it was a very general superstition amongst various peoples, that the body confined to the ground remained there in a state of semiconsciousness, even suffering as the Jews believed, the actual pains of dissolution as a punishment for sins committed.
The ancient Greeks believed that in a material sense their dead were at rest. "Here sleeps so-and-so they wrote over the grave. Have we not acquired from them something more of this superstition than is shown by our adoption of the word "cemetery." The Greek equivalent of this signified "to lull to sleep."
How do we behave in the presence of the dead? The sleep-like appearance of the body is undoubtedly the reason why we converse in hushed whispers, lest we should disturb the sleeper whilst one of the most popular hymns frequently sung in the church or at the grave-side expresses the same thought, "Leave we now thy servant sleeping." Of course it could be argued that whilst such terms are admitted and some reference to sleep is made on every other tombstone, the word is not intended to express actual sleep, but repose in a state of bliss which the Established Church, together with other Protestant bodies, believes the soul has attained, without the intermediary state of purgatory to which the Roman and Greek Churches subscribe.
That the letters R.I.P. stand for something more material than a state of spiritual refreshment to the average mind, cannot, however, be honestly contradicted.
It is a popular belief that the erection of some sort of monument is a necessary finishing touch to the funeral ceremonies, and trading on this absurd conviction we shall find the marble mason's emporium exhibiting the horrors of his craft at the very gates of the cemeteries of any pretensions.
"Strike while the iron is hot," says an old adage, a truth which the Dismal Trader has learnt well enough to profit by, for well he knows that if a reasonable time were allowed for sentimental false values to adjust themselves, the greater part of his living would be gone.
What is true of the private funeral is not less true of the public funeral. Almost before the breath is out of the body, some well-meaning friend or relation starts a subscription list for the purpose of a "suitable" memorial, and according to the sum collected so a more or less expensive monument is erected. Subscriptions in such cases are largely made up of sums given for business or social reasons, and seldom represent, even at the time, any spontaneous offering. Not only is this sort of thing unjust to the living, but equally unjust to the memory of the dead, for after the wave of sentiment has passed the pretensions of the dead are judged not by the weight or costliness of the tomb which covers their remains, but rather by what they have done to further the cause of humanity.
The son of a self-made man erects a memorial at great cost at the death of his father, selecting for the purpose the finest position in the town where his wealth has been accumulated, honestly or otherwise.
By such means are we burdened with inartistic memorials erected to nobodies, which endure long after the reputation of those they represent has found its true level. Our churches and cathedrals suffer from exactly the same sort of thing, subscription tombs and monuments of forgotten politicians, painters whose pictures, once popular, now hardly fetch the price of their frames, poets whose work nobody reads.
To distinguish between the various forms of memorials, we must remember that some were erected over the place of sepulture, whilst others took the form either of a cenotaph or empty tomb, or merely a commemorative stone or tablet.
The tombstone took the place of the ancient obelisk or menhir (derived from the Celtic words signifying a "high stone"), the tomb itself was generally in the form of the Dolmen altar or table tomb.
A memorial stone or cross was at one time commonly placed where the coffin of a distinguished person had rested on its way to burial. At the foot of these crosses, all other coffins which passed that way, rested also.
The Elinor (Queen of Edward I) crosses are an instance of this. Twelve were erected, of which but three remain.
Charing Cross is a copy of the cross at Waltham. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Charing Cross does not necessarily derive its name from the memorial, as is popularly supposed. The word Charing is said to be derived from the Saxon word, Cerran, which means a sharp turn or angle, and is thought to refer to the peculiar twist which the river takes at this point, which renders navigation very difficult to the larger crafts.
We have inherited from past ages very few things which excite so great and general an interest as the monuments found in so many of our churches preserved from the time of the Crusaders.
It has been generally believed that from the crossing of the warrior's legs could be seen the number of wars in which the Crusader had taken part, or, as others supposed, it signified the taking of a vow to proceed to the Holy Land, and that the action often noted of the sword of the knight in the act of being sheathed represented the accomplishment of his purpose. Unfortunately, this interesting supposition does not always accord with historical facts; as Clinch points out, this view is not now generally held, and that the crosslegged attitude was merely a convenient and conventional manner of dealing with the limbs.
The addition of a lion or a dog at the feet of the Crusader was a symbol of courage in the case of the lion and faithfulness in the case of the dog.
It is little wonder that the churches and cemeteries contain so many examples of neglected and decaying tombstones which it has ceased to be anybody's business or interest to repair, a matter which reminds us of that remarkable person Robert Peterson, from whom Sir Walter Scott took the character of "Old Mortality."
Peterson was born in Hawick, Scotland, and was brought up as a stone mason. He was a man of deeply religious convictions, and belonged to an austere sect known as the Cameronians. At an early date he deserted his wife and family and devoted the remaining forty years of his life to the erection and repair of the tombs of the Covenanters who had suffered persecution in the reign of Charles II. He wandered from churchyard to churchyard, his sole companion being an ancient shaggy white pony which lived on the rank grass growing round the neglected graves.
He died in the year 1801, a statue being erected to his memory which shows him engaged in his labour of love.
A society was founded in 1889 called The Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead. This otherwise solitary instance of a mission in the service of the dead is in striking contrast to the damage and destruction of tombs of which we find so many instances throughout the pages of history.
In the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII the destruction of tombs was an obsession. Elizabeth, when she came into power, issued a special mandate against such vandalism, despite which, ruthless despoliation still continued. Tombs were hacked to pieces, and the marble of which they were composed was used for various secular purposes. Those especially suffered which bore the typical inscription of the old faith. It is said that Robert, Earl of Sussex, paved his larder and kitchen with the marble gravestones of his ancestors, to obtain which he did not hesitate to demolish the choir of Atlebrugh Church (Norfolk).
Perhaps nothing suffered more at the hands of the destroyers than the memorial brasses, which richly embellished the majority of the churches at that period.
No doubt this vandalism originated in a sort of religious frenzy, but it was certainly continued for the sake of profiting by the sale of the materials thus obtained. Brass, which always fetched a ready price, was easily removed, and the theft covered by melting down the metal into ingots or moulding it in the form of weights or other articles. In some instances memorial brasses were torn from the tombs for sheer mischief, and found their way more or less undamaged into lumber rooms and odd corners, from which they were later recovered and replaced in their original positions.
These simple and beautiful memorials followed the earlier forms of incised slate or stone. They came into vogue in Henry VIII's reign. Originally used as a coffin plate, they were frequently richly enamelled by the Flemish, who brought the custom to this country, but the art died out, later examples being of brass only. The best brasses are very fine in workmanship, the engraved lines being clear and simple. gradually an attempt to obtain effects by shading with cross-hatched lines vulgarized the work, till it ceased to be of any artistic merit.
As in the case of the marble tombs, the brasses which bore the inscription "orate pro anima" were the first to suffer. It is not uncommon to find traces of still earlier workmanship on the reverse side of these memorials, which had been purchased as scrap brass from those who had stolen them, and later were worked up again for other purposes.
Occasionally memorial brasses are used to-day, but generally in commemoration of the clergy, whose robes or vestments lend themselves to a decorative and conventional treatment. It is an amusing comment on the ugliness of modern costume, which admits of no literal artistic representation, but our newly acquired sense of humour refused to submit to the substitution of the "toga," which was not long since a common expedient.
The coffin "furniture," dear to the undertaker's heart, is otherwise all that is left of the memorial brass. Anything more degraded in design and execution it would be impossible to describe. A glance through the catalogue of the wholesale firms who sell this rubbish to the trade will show a fearful collection of "new art" and other debased designs, if one may call them so, largely savouring of German origin. The cheaper variety were made before the war, by that enterprising nation, out of old tins and cans stamped under pressure and brass-plated.
The now abandoned custom of presenting mourning jewellery in memory of the dead, was once a very general practice. Many of the old jewellers' trade cards show as an important part of the design a tomb on which an inscription was engraved, advertising all kinds of memorial rings and jewellery.
In the Middle Ages, and later, "mourning rings" were frequently mentioned in wills, a certain sum of money being set apart for the purchase and distribution of these mementoes to the relations and friends of the family.
Sometimes attendants and officials received their share also, as a curious extract dated 1719 reminds us. It is taken from the records of the Ironmongers' Company, and shows the Dismal Trade of the period in an unfavourable light.
"The master acquainted the Court that one John Turney, an undertaker for funerals, had lately buried one Mrs. Mason, from the Hall, but had refused the Master Warder and the Clerk each a ring, etc., according to his agreement, the persons invited being served with gloves, hatbands and rings."
Anne of Cleves left by will several mourning rings of various values for distribution at her death.
In Shakespeare's will (1616) sums of money were mentioned for the purchase of rings for several of his friends, three of which were for "My fellows" as he affectionately calls his brother actors, Hemynge, Burbage and Cundell. Izaak Walton in 1683 willed rings as "a friend's farewell," the cost of which he specified as 13s. 4d. each. For his wife and daughter he desired rings to be made and to be inscribed "Love my memory," whilst to the Bishop of Winchester he presented one on which were engraved the words, "a mite for a million," I. W. obit.
In Pepys' Diary in the appendix appears a list of a number of persons to whom mortuary jewellery was to be presented at his death, which took place in 1703. Forty-six rings were to cost twenty shillings, sixty-two were to be of the value of fifteen shillings, and twenty of the value of ten shillings each.
We may be certain that Evelyn, who so dearly loved to uphold the "funeral decencies," would not be behind in the matter of rings.
His child died in 1658, when he writes:
"I caused his body to be coffined in lead and deposited on the 30th at eight o'clock that night in the church at Deptford, accompanied with divers of my relations and neighbours, among whom I distributed rings, with the motto, 'Domincus abstutit.'"
For the burial of Charles I seven rings were made, containing a miniature of the King's head behind a death's head, and a motto, "Prepared be to follow me."
A sentimental attachment to locks of hair is of very old origin. The Greeks cut the first hair of a child, the beard of a youth, and the tresses of a maiden, these they offered to the gods. On the death of a parent the hair of the children, cut off as a token of grief, was placed with the body. Something of this practice was carried forward in the custom of preserving the hair of a deceased person in a special receptacle in memorial rings, brooches, lockets, etc.
The hair was woven or twisted in various ways, and formed quite a feature of the mortuary jewellery a generation since.
The use of black enamel in rings was much in vogue in England, white enamel being frequently substituted in the case of a child or young person. Some of the brooches of the eighteenth century are very fine in workmanship. They frequently contain as part of the design a miniature painted on ivory, representing an urn with a figure (sometimes a portrait of a bereaved husband or wife) weeping over a tombstone, with the usual accompaniment of willows and the like. Small seed pearls were very often introduced as an enrichment, and for the value of their symbol of tears.
Most of the brooches were so formed as to pivot on their frames, disclosing a miniature, or in later days, a daguerreotype of the deceased.
The habit of burying jewels with the dead has been largely responsible for many acts of sacrilege.
There have been many curious superstitions in relation to the wearing of rings.
The inhabitants of some of the Greek Islands believed that the soul could not leave the body as long as a ring remained on the finger. This rendered it necessary for those who watched over the dying to hastily remove the rings on the first symptoms that death had taken place, in order to allow the soul to escape from the body.
Superstition still maintains that the turquoise is affected by the ill-health of a person wearing it, and that it remains dull and leaden in appearance after death, till worn by a person in good health, when it is said to regain the peculiar colour for which it is noted.
If these mortuary jewels were as a whole very ugly, what shall be said of the hideous lumps of crudely manufactured jet which it is still considered by some classes of society to be necessary to wear when "in mourning," or the even more preposterous "half-mourning" sets of ear-rings and the like, in which a little silver is introduced to lighten the effect. Whitby, which for centuries has been the seat of the jet industry, still carries on a trade on these ghoulish appendages, impervious alike to enlightenment or ridicule.
Even so sketchy a chapter on the subject of memorials must not be closed without mention of the still popular mourning card.
Here again, we find that in its original use, it was intended as a reminder of the departed, in order that the recipient might offer prayers for the repose of his soul.
In its present form the mourning card is a modest affair, printed in black and silver, and exhibiting all that elementary lack of taste which is so marked a feature of everything connected with our funeral customs. It contains, as a rule, in addition to the name and age of the deceased, some symbol of the Christian faith, sufficiently obscured by a wreath of lilies or ivy, in order to render it acceptable to all shades of religious opinion. A verse selected from some popular hymn expressing a pious aspiration, preferably in relation to "sleep," is added, but avoiding, of course, all the pitfalls, either definite or dogmatic.
In most family Bibles, earlier examples of the mourning card will be found. These are for the most part embossed in a white relief on a black background. The pierced or fretted variety was once very popular; these were most elaborate, and contained the usual symbols of grief--urns, weeping angels and willow trees.
Various degrees of black-bordered note-paper and envelopes are still in use. Some few years ago, a revolutionary mind introduced an innovaiton which consisted of a black corner to the envelope in place of the sable border. Needless to say, this departure from orthodoxy had but a short life, and was soon overcome by the unwritten laws of funeral tradition.
The old-fashioned tradesman, on whose household death had laid a heavy hand, was wont to put up the shutters of his shop as a token of mourning. The consequent loss of business, in days of keener competition, suggested a modification, which took the form of a simple black-painted board in place of the shutters, a custom which is still to be met with.