Tastes of death

At a time when the world is in the grip of a fatal pandemic it might seem a little strange that the Anorak took the one chance a day to go out for exercise and chose a cemetery for a stroll. But think about it. Graveyards are just about the only places where Joe and Josephine Public have the opportunity to leave an enduring mark; some record of their existence. This is written history, albeit rather selective.

Back in the Victorian past headstones were often sombre things – huge, but sombre – but it seems nowadays pretty much anything goes. While a few souls RIP next to a subtle symbol of their lives, others can be distinctly showy. Apparently some people can also be pretty jealous about their space, even after death. Let’s take a stroll around to see what we can discover.

Take this view, for example. Regimented row of headstones, but just look half-way down. Spot the daffodils? And the extra flower vases, inset plaques and bouquets? That’s as sure a way as any of saying “this is my space, keep off”. Of course we have to remember that it’s not the dead doing this. The occupant of the site isn’t getting much say in it. No, what it actually says is: “Don’t walk on my granny!”

Before we go much further it’s worth noting that, as far as possible, recognisable surnames have been obliterated in all these photos. First names have been left in, because these are all people that we’re talking about. But as pointed out above, it’s those left behind who care about such things and they might not like us discussing their friends and family. That’s why we’re not identifying the cemetery either, though a little judicious research might lead you in the right direction.

So the next stop is at this gent’s tomb. Clearly he’s of oriental descent because of the writing, but without more information it’s not clear which country his ancestors were from. As some Chinese families put their surnames first, both have been covered up in this photo. But note the pebble on top of the headstone. That’s generally a Jewish tradition, but mourners from many cultures are known to do it as a way to show they have visited the grave and that they care. Maybe he had a Jewish visitor. We don’t know, but someone said hello. The two statues are interesting.They look like garden ornaments. Perhaps he was a gardener.

We can tell very little about sadly missed Robert except he was only 55 when he died. We know he was a dear husband and son, but there’s no mention of being a father. He was a Derby County fan, however, as the drawing of ‘Rammy’ shows. How big a fan must he have been to want that on his headstone?

 

The name and the inscribed Celtic cross on 57-year-old Kieran’s grave suggest he probably has Irish ancestry. Behind him lies Geoffrey, whose family chose an unusual inscription. Lord of the Dance is, of course, one way to refer to god in some denominations. But it might also mean that Geoffrey was himself a dancer of some renown. Who knows?

This family clearly want to make an impression. All the graves here share the same surname so it’s a fair bet they’re related. One of the headstones has a romanticised version of a gipsy caravan on it, which implies the family might be travellers.

 

 

 

Another stone nearby has elephants on it, so they could even be circus folk. Collin’s surname is different though.

Clearly there are tastes in how the dead are remembered and over the years there have been trends. Graves from earlier dates tend to be more subtle than more modern plots. Shapes have altered, perhaps as the craft of stonemasonry has developed. (Although medieval stonemasons were pretty skilled!) Photographs of the deceased have appeared. Poems fill the stone available. Decorations have become more ornate; less serious. It makes you wonder what’s next. Have you thought about what you want on your own tombstone?

William Wilberforce 1759 – 1833

It’s amazing how few people have actually heard of William Wilberforce, even though he was one of the most important figures in bringing about an end to slavery in Britain.

Born in Kingston Upon Hull in 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant, he became MP for Yorkshire in 1784. When he converted to Evangelical Christianity a year later his new faith led to philanthropy, in particular the plight of African slaves. His stance made him a target for many people and he often faced criticism for failing to concentrate on the plight of the poor at home.

He was one of the main driving forces behind the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which banned slavery on British soil but did nothing about ending it in the rest of the British Empire. Wilberforce continued to campaign until 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. He lived just long enough to see his dreams achieved. He died just three days after the Act passed through Parliament.

His former home in Hull is now a museum that tells his life story and illustrates the slavery that still exists in the world today. It tells horrific tales of the tortures slaves endured; how they were seen as less than human and defined as property in law. Readings taken from contemporary sources such as slave ship captains, and the slaves themselves, describe life on plantations, and during the long sea voyages that carried them from Africa to the West Indies.

Examples of chains and shackles, whips and other instruments of torture used against slaves are on show. But there are also examples of positive actions of the time such as potter Josiah Wedgwood’s medallion produced for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. It shows a chained, kneeling man and has the caption “Am I not a man and a brother?” The museum also points out that Wilberforce was a founder member of the organisation that eventually became the RSPCA.

Hull’s pride in its son is hard to miss. As well as the museum there’s a Wilberforce pub, and a Wilberforce Drive. Some local schools have named one of their houses after him, and there’s a huge column outside Hull College with a statue of him on top.