Gravestones to die for

snow churchyardI was puttering around the internet this morning doing some research on the proper names for different types of gravestone (because that’s the cheery sort of person I am). I didn’t necessarily get very far, but I’ve come back with all sorts of eye-opening bits and pieces.

Like this…

How’s this for trivia: the sticky-outy bit on older, traditionally shaped stones are called the “shoulders” – or occasionally, the “wings”. How did I not already know that?

Trivia 2: “taphophilia” is a love of funerals or the funereal, including “tombstone tourism”. (So many thoughts, right there…)

Anyway, I also came across a few links that I thought were kind of cool, so.

– There’s the Urbanist’s piece on 10 Types of Tombstone to Die For… (just look at the Knights of Malta one!)
– CNN’s Most Scenic Cemeteries piece; and Departful’s take on the same idea
– How to read a gravestone using a mirror
– Twelve unusual tombs

And, if you’ve the good fortune to not have suffered through my ramblings for very long, there’s always the Resurrection Cheese



Snowflakes and Angels

As part of The Great Relocation of 2013 (don’t ask), I’m currently holed up in a beautiful village in the South-West of England.

It was already pretty when I got here on Sunday afternoon – all old houses and mellow stone and leaded windows – but like most of the UK this morning we’ve woken up to a beautiful covering of snow.

So naturally, I went to the churchyard.

Like you do.


snow churchyard

snow church



I’ve been asked once or twice why Mallory lives in the back of a church in BLOOD AND FEATHERS – but looking at this, it’s hard to imagine anywhere that would suit him better.

Dem Bones

Interesting news culled from The Londonist this morning (yes, I may well be a Brightonian now, but as I’ve long said, cut me & I’ll probably bleed London) – it appears that the London Dungeon have been harbouring a fake among their skeletons.

As in… a fake-fake.

As in… a real skeleton.

Alarmingly, it may even have been there since the dungeon opened 30-odd years ago, passing as an extremely good reproduction.

Hrrmpph. Shudder. Dislike. (Mostly, admittedly, because I dread to think what they’ve done to the poor thing during that time, blissfully unaware that it wasn’t a piece of plastic. Of course, you’d have thought the fact it was made of bone might have tipped them off a touch, wouldn’t you…?)

Also? I would love to see the offices of the Human Tissue Authority, as mentioned in that article. In my head, I picture them looking rather like this:

For preference, there should be some kind of ominous up-lighting, armed guards wearing goggles and possibly even the odd fluttering banner hanging down the front of the building.

Although they probably look rather more pedestrian.

Why yes, I do have an overactive imagination, thank you very much.

Also: on the subject of Bones, a – possibly even true! – piece of trivia. Ever considered the naming of the main character from “Bones“? She’s called Temperance, making a lovely little Tarot in-joke. In the major arcana, card XIII is (predictably) Death. And card XIV… is Temperance. So after Death, you see Temperance.

Unless, presumably, you’re the poor soul in the London Dungeon. In which case, you see tourists…


Bread of Heaven?

Here’s something new and exciting I learned about this week: funeral biscuits. Well, when I say new and exciting, I mean that it’s something I’d never come across before, and the concept is a fascinating one.

I stumbled across a mention of “arval bread” in relation to biscuits either eaten at, or after a funeral (it was all a little vague)–or in some cases, given out beforehand as a sort of invitation–and, because I’m a nosey old soul, I had a poke around the internet to see what it could tell me.

Arval bread is, in fact, quite often a kind of biscuit, particularly associated with Yorkshire funeral customs in the 18th & 19th Centuries. The biscuits were small, usually flavoured with caraway or molasses, and wrapped in paper (sometimes printed with lines from a hymn or Psalm) and sealed with black wax. The specific recipes used varied wildly, even from town to town, as did the time & method of distribution. In some cases, the biscuits were more like small cakes; in others they resemble shortbread or oatcakes, stamped with cherubs, hearts, crosses or death-heads, and were served with a type of sweetened spiced (and occasionally “burned”) wine.  All the combinations, however, connect to ancient funeral practices found on the Continent.

The term “arval” appears to stem from the Nordic tradition of providing  “averil”, or “heir-ale” at a funeral, toasting the eldest male and heir to the household or title as he took possession of his inheritance.

In the Germany of the Middle Ages, there was a slightly different tradition: that of the “corpse cake”. Here, mourners would gather at the home of the deceased for the laying out of the body, and the traditional wake (which, of course, was once a vigil lasting the night before the funeral). Once the corpse had been washed and arranged, a dough was prepared and then placed on the linen-covered corpse’s chest and left to rise. It was believed that the dough would absorb some of the deceased’s qualities, which would in turn be passed on to the mourners when they ate the bread, recalling both the superstition of sin-eating, and the ritual of ceremonial cannabalism.

The tradition spread to the US with settlers: recipes from Dutch communities in the Hudson River Valley (a place with a reputation for the gothic, thanks to Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow“) survive, and describe the preparation of “doot coekjes” or “death cookies”.

With the progression of the Victorian Age, funerals–like weddings–became a commercial enterprise, and just as wedding cakes were big business, so were funeral biscuits. However, unlike wedding cakes, the funeral biscuit began, appropriately, to die out, and “averils” became entire meals: funeral feasts and teas… which have, in turn, become the modern wakes we recognise today.

(The accompanying picture, by the way, is of funeral biscuits reproduced by Historic Faux Foods: a research project which aims to accurately reproduce historical foods & room settings for museums and other exhibitions). You can find bits on funeral biscuits here, here and here; as well as a fascinating blog post about funeral food, which goes on to talk about Southern funeral cooking, and which can be found here.

Heart Burials

Here’s an interesting thing: the last heir of the Habsburg Empire (who relinquished his claim in 1961) has been buried in Vienna.

At least, most of him has.

In line with Habsburg family tradition, his heart will be buried in an abbey just outside Budapest.

Burials in which the heart is interred separately from the body (or “heart burials”) aren’t all that unusual, historically-speaking. The Ancient Egyptians yanked all sorts of squishy bits out of bodies post-mortem and packed them into canopic jars–albeit for very different reasons. Medieval monarchs also received heart burials: supposedly, Richard and Henry I; Robert the Bruce and Eleanor I all rest in pieces.

From the 12th Century, the separate burial of a corpse’s heart and viscera (or intestines) was remarkably common for English & French aristocracy. As the medieval period progressed, heart burials increasingly ignored the intestines.

Often, hearts were buried at the place of death: a practical solution to the challenge of preserving a body, or were destined to be carried to a place of significance (as was often the case for Crusader Knights: some, who died in battle, asked for their hearts to return home. Others, dying at home many years later, might ask for their hearts to be buried in Jerusalem).

Special heart sepulchres would mark the burial place, while the hearts were buried inside visceral urns engraved with their own epitaphs, such as this play on Luke 12:34:

‘Ubi thesaurus meus, ibi cor meum’

Where my treasure is, there is my heart.

Aside from practical or sentimental reasons, medieval heart burials may be an expression of benefaction to a religious order – the case of a founder of an abbey or monastery, for example, may have donated their heart for burial. More than being a spiritual act, the creation of a bond between the order and the founder’s direct descendants helped to ensure their continued patronage.

But the best story about heart burials involves Thomas Hardy, whose body is interred as ashes in Westminster Abbey – but whose heart is buried in Dorset. Or possibly not. The story goes that following Hardy’s death, his doctor removed the heart and took it for safe-keeping until burial… but there is another version, in which the doctor puts the heart down for a moment… and it disappears. Suspicion falls (as it always does) on the cat. After a thorough search, the heart is nowhere to be found and instead, a pig’s heart is substituted for symbolic burial.

While it’s unlikely to be true, “The Cat Who Ate Hardy’s Heart” would make quite a story…

Defending the Dead

There’s a ghastly story in the news today: the story of two brothers in Pakistan who dug up the body of a young woman and turned some of the flesh into a curry.

Predictably, I heard about this from one of the horror posse–and equally predictably, everyone else (me included) jumped in with less-than-tasteful comments.

That’s not the nicest response to such an appalling piece of news, I know. The thing is, how else do you process something like that? Humour is our only real defence against the real horrors of the world–and for all their posturing, horror writers are generally more appalled by these sorts of stories than they let on. After all, they like to think that they can think up worse than you’d ever dream of; things that you couldn’t ever imagine actually happening… sadly, that’s not always the case.

It’s been a day for the dead one way and another, with the release of photos from the new archeological digs that have opened up along the route of the Crossrail construction through central London. There are currently 20 digs in progress, one of which is directly in the middle of the site of Bedlam – or St Bethlem hospital – and its burial ground.

Any major building project in London always uncovers history: the arrival of the railways at Kings Cross & St Pancras led to mass exhumations from the churchyards around the parish of St Pancras, and the Barbican’s foundations stand in the middle of a large plague-pit (part excavated, admittedly, by the Blitz). When work on One Poultry, close to the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City, began in the mid 1990s, the archaeology uncovered was so valuable to our understanding of Roman London that the dig lasted a full two years.

London is built on the bones of the dead: today’s Londoners literally stand on the shoulders of their forebears.

All of this reminded me of an article the New Scientist ran back in March about legislation governing the display & reburial of bodies discovered at archeological digs. It’s an entirely sensible piece: one which recognises the importance of treating the dead with dignity; of returning identified remains to their family (where possible) and the appropriate handling of bodies which have been requested for reburial on religious grounds. But it also argues that we can learn so much more from the long-dead: those whose names have been lost to history.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

Their names may be lost, but their faces are not. Thanks to modern technology, we can get a good idea of how they looked, what they ate, how they lived and what killed them. Through archaeology, they get to live again – they get to tell their stories; they get to teach and to inspire.

We’re still standing on their shoulders, of course… but this way, we get to see where we come from–not just where we’re going.

At the Cross-Bones Gates

Gates to Cross Bones graveyard

There’s a curious graveyard in south London. It was closed in the 1850s, having been described as being “completely overcharged with dead”, its gates are decked with ribbons and it’s where you’ll find the Winchester Geese.

Who were the Winchester Geese? “Single women”, as the Londonism went: prostitutes licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Liberty of the Clink – the fabulously disreputable area of Southwark famed for its brothels since the 12th Century (as it fell outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, the Church found it a convenient place both to accommodate female orphans and to deal with the… urges of the clergy. It was a notorious gambling spot, and riddled with thieves – a veritable den of iniquity if ever there was one). Curiously, it’s why you’ll occasionally see “goose bumps” historically used to refer to VD – to be “bitten by a Winchester goose” was to contract syphilis. Nice.

But I digress. We were talking about Cross Bones.

The graveyard was unconsecrated – burial there was the fate of not just the prostitutes but paupers too: anyone from the margins of society could find themselves among the 15,000 bodies thought to be interred there.

A vigil is held there every Halloween, led by playwright John Constable and the Friends of Cross Bones

You’ll find Cross Bones on Redcross Way, in Borough: look for the ribbons, which have now come to symbolise not just the women buried within, but all women in the oldest profession – and any of society’s outcasts, living or long-dead.


The Great Necropolis

When people talk about London cemeteries, they always mention Highgate. They may well come up with Abney Park, too, or Bunhill Fields. But very often, they forget the best one of all.

Brookwood cemetery lies just to the south-west of London: close to Pirbright – home of the last foot and mouth outbreak, for those inclined to remember that sort of thing.

It was opened in 1854, consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester, and was known as the London Necropolis: at the time, it was the largest cemetery in the world. It may since have lost that title, but it remains the largest in the UK, and one of the biggest in Europe.

So important was it, and so large, that it even had its own railway, and two stations within the grounds (one for Non-Conformists, one for Anglicans). And just as the mourners travelled in class-segregated carriages, so too did the dead. Yes, they did. Should you choose to bury Great-Uncle Francis at Brookwood, you could board the train to the funeral safe in the knowledge that he would not – even in death – be rubbing coffin-nails with the hoi-polloi. They’d be safely stowed in Third Class. The trains ran from a special terminus at Waterloo – although as road traffic increased through the 1920s and 1930s, the trains ran less regularly, and the service was discontinued altogether after the terminus was hit by a bomb during the 1941 Blitz. It’s still there, of course – but the platforms, waiting rooms and mortuary (naturally) are long-gone.

Brookwood itself is a strange sort of place. It has several avenues of giant sequoia, and dotted among them – seemingly at random – are graves, mausolea, tombs, memorials… you name it. Everyone from Edward the Martyr to Dennis Wheatley can be found here, taking in the illustrator of Rupert the Bear and Edith Thompson along the way. It was also the initial resting place of Dodi Al Fayed, before his body was moved to the family estate.

Hidden away in all this, there’s a monastery: that’s where you’ll find the Brotherhood of St Edward, along with the small Orthodox church and shrine. I know this area of the cemetery well: it’s where my grandparents are buried.

It’s a peculiar place, Brookwood – even by graveyard standards. It has none of the cosmopolitan glamour of, say Père Lachaise, nor the gothic marvel of Highgate, with its Egyptian Walk or Circle of Lebanon. What it does have is peace, and a sense that to end up here might not be the very worst thing in the world.

Sure, you most likely won’t get to travel there in the style you once might have, but you can’t hold that against it. And in the meantime, if you’re ever in the area, you could do worse than to spend a drizzly winter Saturday afternoon taking a stroll in the grounds.

Look in on the family; tell them I sent you. Who knows – maybe they’ll give you a tour…..