Sussex Graves and Gravestones

 A talk by Kevin Gordon in November 2019

Kevin’s return to the society provided a fascinating evening.   He explained the circular graveyards, such as at Berwick and Hellingly, by showing their pagan origins some 5,000 years ago.   Their use over so many centuries means that often there are over 300 bodies reflected by every gravestone, and height of the ground has increased considerably over the centuries.

Plots to the south of the church were the most popular since they would be passed by people on their way to church and so receive more prayers.   The clergy themselves, whose stones carry a cross, tended to be interred in the church itself as were the more distinguished gentry.   Several churches, like Brightling and Selmeston, have memorial brasses.

Funerals took place normally the day after a death as bodies could not be kept cool.   They were put in a winding cloth and on the day of the funeral the vicar would meet the coffin at the lychgate or tapsell gate prior to the service.   Many afterwards were then tipped into the grave so that the parish coffin could be reused.

During the 19th century many graves were made more secure to prevent body snatching for medical research.   As well as the large stone family vaults there were iron railings although much would be taken away in the 2nd World War for melting down for aircraft and munitions.

Kevin showed how gravestones can be very helpful for researching into family history, providing family details, sometimes occupations as with a blacksmith at East Dean or an apothecary at Ditchling, or someone’s hobby through the carving of a piano accordion, or the cause of death such as at Walberton where Charles Cook was killed by a falling tree and a girl was killed by a beer barrel rolling from a cart.   The swing bridge which Thomas Tipper designed at Newhaven was reflected in a carving on his gravestone.

The symbolism on gravestones was explained:  angels, cherubs, a skull, an anchor, an hourglass or shaking hands showing a couple reunited in death.  Some show a coffin lid opening, indicating a spirit released into heaven.   Similarly he explained the significance of particular flowers, such as daffodils for deep regard and ivy for affection.

Graveyards have tended to be relocated out of town, partly because of their overcrowding, partly because of anxieties over their proximity to wells.   They have also become more neglected as the population has become more mobile.

An intriguing evening will enable teach of us present to discover more of our local history as we look more carefully at the details of our churchyards.

David James