Epitaphs: Grave and Gay
"There was a noble way, in old times, of saying things simply, and yet saying them proudly," said Washington Irving. "I do not know an epitaph that breathes a loftier consciousness of family worth and honourable lineage than one which affirms of a noble house that 'all the brothers were brave, and all the sisters virtuous.'" The early Christians practised a simplicity even more chaste. "To my sweet daughter Petronilla" is the inscription marking the burial place, it is said, of the daughter of Saint Peter; and second century tablets which have been discovered are equally free from the pride of life. "Sabbathius, sweet soul, ask and pray," or, "I, Aurelius Dorotheus, erected this tomb for myself and my mother Marcellina, and my children, and my cousins. Farewell, ye that pass by"; or the touching request, "Matronata Matrona, who lived one year and fifty-three days. Pray for thy parents." The tender appeal of such inscriptions puts to shame idle curiosity; they are as rue for remembrance.
In old, old Lincoln, built into the outside wall of the tower of the church of S. Mary-le-Wigford, will be found a Roman gravestone. There are many such in Old England; but on this one, over the original inscription, is recorded a Saxon name - Eirtig, and the dedication of some building "to the Glory of Christ and Mary." Now we begin to touch tangible records; it is interesting to note that burial "within the walls" of the church was not permitted until a.d. 658, and then conceded, by the Council of Nantes, to the illustrious dead alone. Then came about the custom of marrying - and burying - at the church-porch.
Husbands at churche dore have I had five -
says Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Some of our Saxon kings were buried in the "porch" of S. Peter's at Rome; and The Venerable Bede tells us that S. Augustine was buried (604) in the north porch of the new monastic church of SS. Peter and Paul outside Canterbury. This church has disappeared long ago; but, lest it may appear strange to speak of burying "in the porch," it may be remembered that in the larger churches the "porticus" or "porch" was frequently a fairly large colonnaded building; even "the dooms and lawes of the King" were, as Lydgate tells us, performed there. If Lincoln Cathedral possesses a noble example - which, though closed in, can still be traced - a modest example of the Decorated Period can be seen at Snettisham, Norfolk. Thus, at Dawlish, and at Kingsbridge, we may read:
Here I lie at ye church door,
An example of noble simplicity which was admired by Addison must not be passed by; that writer refers to it in his "Spectator" essay of September 22, 1711. It was then to be seen in S. George's church, Doncaster:
How now, who is heare?
Quoth Robertus Byrks, who in this
It may still exist; but "the iniquity of Time blindly scattereth her poppy."
One still older is in the north aisle of Lavenham Church, Norfolk, on a small monument with a man and a woman engraven in brass. From the man's mouth proceeds a scroll with these words: "In manus tuus due comendo spiritum meum," and underneath:
Contynuall prayse these lines in brass,
And before reciting some epitaphs wherein dead men play nicely with their names or their trades, the following may be noted for its similarity to the trifling lines which do no honour to, but are glorified by, the name of Shakespeare. They are at Clayworth, Notts:
Blessed be he that set this stone,
lines which tempt one to suggest that the crude phraseology was part of the stock in trade of those "epitaphers and position-poets that swarm like crows to a dead carcass," as Nash put it, in his Preface to Greene's "Menaphon" (1589).
Let us turn to some inscriptions which invite at least a nodding acquaintance with the lives of if not the actual persons they silently record. And, as far as possible, we will avoid those ecstatical and lengthy heroics which incite admiration but to suppress it with a yawn. "An epitaph ought not to be longer than common beholders may be expected to have the leisure or patience to peruse," said Dr. Johnson; or the reader, either, we may add.
Here is an epitaph to an old bow-man, from S. James's Church, Clerkenwell:
Sir William Wood lies very near this stone,
As companion to a brave soldier, Kaye Mawer, a promising young sailor, deserves honourable mention:
He was an excellent sailor
Here is one to the "old Court Poet," Thomas Churchyard, who was doubtless a contributor to one of our very earliest anthologies of verse, the famous "Tottel's Miscellany" or "Songes and Sonettes," 1557: "I would rather than forty shillings I had my book of songs and sonnets here," says Cousin Slender in "The Merry Wives." This excellent minor author of 60 volumes died in 1604, and was buried close to another " Old Court Poet " - Skelton - in S. Margaret's, Westminster. His epitaph is flavoured with Elizabethanism:
Come, Alecto, and lend me thy torch,
Even authorship and brevity may go hand in hand, witness that on the writer of a famous book on Particles:
Here lie Walker's Particles.
From courtly poetry turn we to courtly dancing. Thomas Chambers was the Turveydrop of his day, making his final bow in 1765:
Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Never, surely, was Mrs. Thrale's polite maxim better followed: "let us write the brief parenthesis of life neatly, and leave our visiting ticket on the world." And the phrase, "Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" was even more oddly associated in the following, to be found in Dorsetshire:
Here lies the body of Lady O'Looney, great-niece of Burke, commonly called the Sublime. She was bland, passionate, and deeply religious. Also, she painted in water-colours, and sent several pictures to the Exhibition. She was first cousin to Lady Jones, and of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
If dancing-masters and nieces of Lady Jones are comparatively rare, the procession of publicans is as endless as the visionary Kings of Scotland which affrighted Macbeth. The wine being out, the wit is, on the whole, poor and lacking aroma. There is, however, no half-measure in the following practical specimen from Upton-on-Severn.
Beneath this stone, in hope of Zion,
Indeed, the heir of "The Lion" might say, with poor old Jacob Freeman, buried in the Cloister Yard of Norwich Cathedral - "where he used to lie and sleep with his head on a stone" -
For so indeed it came to pass,
Then there was Shadrach, who, landlord of the Wheatsheaf at Bedford, father of thirty-two children (who perhaps wore out his surname with continued application, for it does not appear to be known), and who rejoiced in the following encomium:
Shadrach lies here, who made both sexes happy,
However, farewell to thoughtless jests; let us consider the fate of lawyers as expressed in epitaphs. Honest lawyers vie with Roman Emperors as subjects for deification:
God works a wonder now and then,
Blacksmith's epitaphs are of interest, as:
My sledge and hammer lies reclined,
for that epitome, or the like, may be seen at Cheltenham, Melton Mowbray, Blidworth (Notts), Bothwe,ll, Carisbrook, Feltham in Essex, Rochdale in Lancashire, Westham in Essex, at Lincoln, and at Belch-ford, Lincolnshire.
Parish clerks are proverbially verbose, and in death they are not divided. Here is a short one, from Selby (Yorks):
Here lies the body of poor Frank Row,
and sextons loquacious - but their friends are to the point:
Hurrah! my brave boys, let's rejoice at his fall,