Changes in fashion for gravestone epitaphs 1700 to 1900


As part of the project to map the gravestones in the churchyard of St Mary and All Saints’ Parish Church, all readable inscriptions were collected. Of some 600 gravestones, about half carry epitaphs. When these were arranged in chronological order it became clear that these could also be classified broadly into a number of categories. It seemed that the proportions of epitaphs in each category within particular date periods might tell us something about how people viewed death and burial during each of those periods. From the outset, one has to remember that more recent gravestones are more likely to have survived than older ones, due to weathering, pressure on space changing the physical layout of the churchyard and other factors, so the ‘statistics’ presented must be viewed accordingly. Nevertheless the exercise is nicely thought provoking!

Eight groups were identified:

1. Those mentioning painful death
2. Those mentioning sudden death
3. Stones for children
4. The Enlightenment - Family and friends
5. The Enlightenment - Rational Pragmatism
6. The Romantic Period - Meeting Again
7. The Romantic Period - Resurrection of the individual
8. Evangelicalism - Biblical Quotations

Two other groups were distinguished but not for statistical analysis. ‘Fight the Good Fight’ highlights some known lay preachers and the ‘specials’ are descriptive of the specific person in a particular way.

We explored each of these to see if trends could be discerned in terms of the types of epitaphs being used at different times and some of the social influences that might have been at work. All epitaphs in the churchyard are listed so the reader can make up his own mind. All stones appear in the data base and are listed in a handbook held in Bingham Library. The location of every grave has been mapped, which was the original purpose of the project.

Tentative general conclusions are:

1 Many verses were in common use throughout the country, as evidenced by information on web sites produced for other churchyards both in the UK and the USA. One might imagine undertakers or monumental masons had a selection of popular quotations in a catalogue.

2 Verses were popular in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries but almost disappeared after 1850 to be replaced by one line quotes from the bible.

3 There was always a generally stoical acceptance of death as inevitable and often at an early age. This is a simple reflection of life in those times.

4 Emphasis on religiosity, e.g. the certainly of resurrection, waxed and waned with the years. The fashion for more secular rational thought also came and went.

5 The development of medical practice in terms of pain relief removed that particular horror after the early to mid 19th century.

6 The general acceptance of infant and child mortality is striking. Even the sentimental verses were more about a better life hereafter than sadness at the loss.

7 The use of verses was dominant until the 1850s when single line biblical quotations became the most popular by a very large margin (Table 3)

Tables 1 and 2 show the ‘statistics’ quoted for the various groups. They allow comparison between time periods of the percentage of stones in a category with the percentage of all stones with epitaphs. Marked differences are taken to suggest some sort of trend. This is a simplistic approach but does produce ideas for discussion!

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