A Talk by Elizabeth Hughes on 15th October 2004
If like me you thought of churchyards as sombre places only visited on sad occasions then Elizabeth Hughes talk, illustrated with slides, would have proved very enlightening. She started by explaining that today churches and churchyards occupy some 25,000 acres of the country and represent probably the most stable structure in any settlement, telling us much about local communities, their people, customs and tastes.
In ancient times burials took place outside towns. The Romans buried their dead alongside roads and it was not until the 752AD that St Cuthbert obtained consent for burials to be made around the church. Enclosure of an acre of land, normally of rectangular shape, followed and was the origin of the expression “God’s Acre”. Much rarer are circular sites which are generally raised indicating that they were probably originally Pagan burial-places. Burials would generally take place to the south of the Church thereby banishing the devil to the dark of the north – or was it perhaps to provide a sunny aspect for the mourners? Lack of space ultimately lead to the use of land to the north often followed by further expansion, as was the case in Wadhurst which was last extended in 1907.
The familiar lych-gates, we were told, originally served a practical purpose. The word lych derives from the German word leiche meaning corpse and gives us a clue as to their original use. In medieval times coffins were rare, shrouds generally being used instead, but many parishes had a communal coffin and this would be placed on a table under the ridge prior to being wheeled to the burial site. The burial sites would often be marked by wooden crosses which have long since disappeared and it was not until after the reformation that gravestones became common. Normally oriented west to east graves came in many shapes and sizes reflecting the status and tastes of the occupants. Headstones were generally made from local materials until the 19th century when the advent of the train allowed materials to be imported from further afield. Inscriptions reflected the era varying from the pious to the vulgar but more often extolling the virtues of the deceased.
Churchyard burials were the norm until the middle ages when the burial of the clergy and the rich within the structure of the Church began. Plaques were often placed on the walls and sometimes, memorial slabs were laid in the floor, those commemorating the Ironmasters in Wadhurst being fine examples. One of the strangest memorials is that of Tiddles the church cat who watches over those entering St Mary’s Church, Fairford.
Almost every churchyards possess at least one yew tree but why is not clear. Was it to cleanse the air from the poison arising from the ground or to provide a source of wood for longbows? Outbuildings were sometimes constructed to house the grave diggers tools and were also used as shelters for watchmen in the days of grave snatching. Churchyards were often rented out for grazing but Elizabeth concluded her most interesting talk by pointing out that today they are more likely to be studied for the stable habitat they provide which encourages a great variety of wild life.