You might think of graveyards as morbid, depressing, very sad and creepy places and perhaps the modern graveyards and cemeteries are but I love visiting old graveyards. It may sound strange but I know I am not the only one who has this fascination! To me, they are beautiful, peaceful and extremely interesting places.
First of all, before we even get into the graveyard, there is usually an old church. That alone can often draw me in. This may sound odd for a Pagan or Witch but it has nothing to do with religion, worship, or gods of any kind. I am awed by the construction that took place hundreds of years ago. Many of the churches around where I live are Norman, built over 900 years ago and I have visited others (some just ruins) that are much older. The churches all seem to have evolved over the years with bits added on here and there, leaving odd little traces of what used to be, half an arch disappearing behind a later wall, stone steps that lead up to nowhere and old Celtic or pagan relics that have been incorporated into later designs. There is one round here with a tower that leans so far over it looks like it is going to fall (apparently it was leaning before it was even finished but they just carried on regardless?). Another has the tower built totally separate to the church.
They would have begun with dirt floors and stone benches around the sides, with bright white washed walls to awe the commoner and none of the wooden benches and tiled floors we see today. Medieval floor tiles were developed in monasteries during the first quarter of the 13th century and weren’t used regularly in churches and other major church buildings until the 14th century. The basic stonework will be original and you can sometimes see traces of the original paintwork up high. The small faces and grotesques lining the walls inside are a particular favourite of mine. Some are very precise and obviously carved to represent a particular person or monarch. Then you get ones that are just weird! Half animal half human, pulling silly faces, a finger up the nose, serpents, imps, dragons and other odd things. What were these people thinking of when they carved them, were they just having fun, I wonder? Grotesques are said to frighten off and protect those that they guard from any evil or harmful spirits. I am always delighted when I find a green man or pentagram but they are a rare treat.
Then we come outside, it’s very quiet here, not just because of the nature of the place but because the thick stone walls of the church often block any noise from traffic on the streets at the front. Looking back up at the church I will see the various gargoyles way up high, I love trying to spot them all, they are wonderful. Their two main purposes were to scare off evil, and to divert rainwater away from the building. I would have them all over my house and garden if I could. The stranger the better. Sadly they are rather expensive so I only have a few gargoyles and grotesques here and there. Occasionally I come across a church that has none at all … I always feel cheated.
The church gate or the Lych gate is a gateway covered with a roof found at the entrance to a traditional English churchyard. They were a place to rest the corpse and for the mourners to gather out of the rain before the burial.
The grave stones them selves are interesting, you can often spot a “trend” of headstone styles that are all from around the same time period or associated with a particular family. I like the intricately carved Celtic Crosses but they are few and far between. I’m also intrigued by all the lovely old names that are not heard of any more, some sound very strange and may not even have been the person’s original name as records were often lost and nicknames were all they were known by. Although some of those old names are coming slowly back into fashion.
The gravestones facing north generally age quicker than the south facing stones. The way the date is written (Arabic or Roman numerals) the type of font used and even the language used all differs according to the age of the stone. For example the word “Relict,” was often used in the 1700’s, which means a woman that was a widow at the time of her death.
Family plots can have you searching round to fit all the family pieces together. I once found a large plot way in the back of an old church yard, it clearly had 3 generations all buried together, from the late 19th and early 20th century. It didn’t take too much to figure out who married who and what children they had. Sadly they had lost some of their children at very young ages. There was another family plot next to them which was very similar. I got so caught up in these two families that were obviously linked in some way that I went off to the local town library and looked them up. It turned out the two families of Wallis and Steevens were manufacturers and suppliers of steam powered agricultural and construction machinery. They were a very large and successful company based in Hampshire and unlike others, they actually looked after their workers. The wives would visit sick employees and take them bread. Nearly a hundred years later and I brought these amazing families back to life, just in my head and for only a short while but I will remember them always.
Then there are the trees, such beautiful old trees. What might these trees have seen? They would have been saplings in a very different world from the one they are in today. I love trees, they radiate calm and peace and call me a tree hugger if you wish, but standing or sitting at the base of one of these massive old trunks is one of the most soothing experiences you can have. They always help me put life back into perspective. The mighty oaks standing tall and solid, the yews with their intertwined red trunks, often hollowed out near the centre, the Beeches that were so close that they have grown up as one tree, the list goes on.
Sometimes I visit just to be alone and find peace. I see the gravestones but don’t see them at the same time. I have encountered all sorts of different wildlife, mainly squirrels and birds. During my last visit, a few weeks back, I was followed round by a little Robin. Poignant perhaps as many believe a Robin is a sign from a lost loved one but a welcome happy sight for me .
Is visiting an old graveyard morbid and creepy? No, to me it’s much more like visiting a museum, with beautiful sculptures, intricate carvings, fabulous architecture and interesting history, all in a peaceful and natural, outdoor setting full of trees, birds and small animals. What more could you want!
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