Gravestone Inscriptions

Perhaps l’m just weird, but l find gravestones fascinating!

Apart from their obvious use to people researching family history, they can provide an intriguing insight into the life of our ancestors. Stone memorials only started to appear in the 17th century replacing the earlier wooden crosses. They come in various styles which used to indicate the social and financial standing of the person; ranging from no stone at all for the poorest, through sandstone and marble right up to elaborate and grand mausoleums for the rich land-owners. Resting places inside the church itself were only for the very wealthiest benefactors.

But it’s not just the style of the stone which is interesting but also the inscription that’s written on it. l’m thinking here not of the essential biographical details (name and dates) but more about the written epitaph. This often has a great deal to say about either the person themselves or about the social attitudes of the time. Sometimes the inscription was related to their occupation to which the text can give useful clues.

There are some famous inscriptions - l’m sure everyone knows Spike Milligan’s “l told you I was ill” (although it had to be written in Gaelic before the Chichester Diocese would approve it) or Peter Ustinov’s “Do not walk on the grass”, but there are similar gems to be found in nearly every churchyard.

In the 18th century people weren’t squeamish and the stones often had death scenes carved into them. Young Ann Rusbridger was killed while playing in the street when a barrel fell from a passing cart and struck her, and this scene is faithfully depicted on her headstone in Walberton churchyard. Another headstone (also at Walberton) shows the hapless victim lying underneath the tree that crushed him while a woodman with an axe in his hand acknowledges his sorry role in the affair!

So the next time you are passing a graveyard, pop in and have a read of some of the inscriptions and see what it reveals about our history. Spend a moment thinking about what life was like for our ancestors (count how many died young - in the 19th century you were lucky to make it to 35 years old). What does their inscription say about them or the way they lived?

And finally, whose gravestone in St. Mary’s churchyard has the inscription "We hope his change is for the best, To live with Christ and be at rest" and what is his important connection with Yapton school?

Geoff Westcott
December 2006

(Originally published in Yapton News & Views, January 2007)

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