EPISODE 4A: GRAVE
PART 1 OF 2
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumbering breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.
The grounds, which on the right aspire,
In dimness from the view retire:
The left presents a place of graves,
Whose wall the silent water laves.
That steeple guides thy doubtful sight
Among the livid gleams of night.
There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
"Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”
Episode music begins............
In order to discuss graves, we must first discuss death. The act of death itself is biological, but it causes a ripple effect because it also has psychological, religious, and legal components to it. We all experience death, we all watch the ones we love go through it, and we all live in fear of it for ourselves. Nothing affects our lives the way it does.
Many animals mourn the loss of a family member or mate, but none of them go to the trouble of designating a specific place for them, and they definitely don’t go back and revisit this area deliberately. The act of the burying the dead, and then marking it, is a uniquely human behaviour.
Our grave is the place our body goes to rest after we die. Whether it is a coffin in the ground, or an urn full of ashes on a mantle, this place, becomes our home, and depending on our culture, religion, and personal taste, this can vary in what it looks like.
I’m actually not going to get into burial rituals and funeral rites in this episode, because I will be in a later one but I wanted to just touch on who began this trend.
The earliest known intentional burials took place about 70,000 years ago. The Neanderthals deliberately disposed of their dead, though we don’t know why they started doing this. The strongest theory is that they were taught by Homo sapiens because it is around this time, our ancestors began to mix with the neanderthals. Hopefully one day an actual location that houses both species will be found. Until then, we can only guess.
My fascination with graves, began as a young child. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents place, and nestled in the woods beside the house is a small hill that is topped with a homemade gravestone.
The little circular boulder marks the resting place for Buffy, the Saint Bernard my mom and her siblings grew up with.
She was loveable and goofy but also a protective companion to the kids. She had an intense dislike of motorcycles and could sometimes be seen chasing them along road. There was another thing Buffy didn’t tolerate; late dinner. She would pick up her bowl in her mouth and carry it to the door as if to remind you of her existence. All in all, she was a great girl.
Unfortunately not everyone was as fond of Buffy as my family was, and when she was just eight years old, she was poisoned by a neighbour. An end she definitely didn’t deserve.
I did all my best thinking and planning up there sitting on Buffy’s marker. I told her about my toad catching operation, what I had eaten for lunch, and new games I invented that day. I wonder, without her grave being where it was, would she still have become a companion for me as well?
Probably not. It was that simple gravestone, that sparked the question to my mom “Who is Buffy?”
At the start of this episode I read an excerpt from a poem called A Night Piece on Death by Thomas Parnell. In it, he talks about the finality and stillness of graves, but also what they can teach us.
I want to provide you with a bit of that knowledge, because when you know what to look for, a grave can tell you a beautiful story.
For the rest of this episode, I will be focusing mainly on Britain, Canada and the USA, from the 17th century to the present. The roots and origins of these burial grounds and practices are mostly Christian.
First up in this handbook is location:
While used interchangeably there is actually a difference between a cemetery and a graveyard. The first is a plot of land that is designated for burials. I know what you’re thinking, so is a graveyard, and you’re right, but a graveyard is always attached to a church of some sort.
Cemeteries can have a religious association, but they can also be mixed and open to everyone who can afford it, especially now a days. If you remember from the clover episode, cemeteries can also be on private land and contain only one family, this is known as a family plot, which can be confusing because in all cemeteries and graveyards that have different people you can also have a section of land just for your family and that is also a family plot.
Still with me? Good.
In the Victorian era there was a rise in what is known as the Garden Cemetery. What sparked this were mounting fears about the dangers of overcrowded city cemeteries. These new ones were sprawling with low hills and full of grass and trees. They were just a really nice place to be. People visited them frequently, and had picnics and went for leisurely walks among the gravestones. Now I can’t speak for other places, but in Canada this is still really common.
Next comes the architecture. Both cemeteries and graveyard buildings and objects contain at least one distinct style. Sometimes they are gothic, others are regency, some are medieval and so on. Now the style, or styles, depends on when it was built, whether it is still in use and the area of a country or town it resides in.
Have you ever driven through a neighbourhood and noticed that all the houses look the same? It works, it fits, it looks complete, right? Well cemeteries are no different. Sometimes you’ll see a modern monument surrounded by others from 100 years earlier, and it just looks so out of place, that is until more modern ones begin to appear. Then, it takes on that beautiful eclectic look, which I personally love.
The first clue of what type of architecture a cemetery contains, is in the lichgate. They come in a range of styles and materials, but the most common are metal, stone or wood. I myself, am partial to the wooden covered type. It sort of feels like you’re crossing a bridge and entering another world.
Then we get to the graves themselves. Simply put, a grave is anywhere remains are interred.
The most common type is a hole dug in the ground, and then a casket containing a body is put inside, then it’s all covered back up with dirt, but there are other types.
Such as a tomb.
A tomb is an above ground building where remains are placed. Sometimes these are in a large stone casket known as a sarcophagus, other times they are drawers in a wall like you’ll see in modern tombs known as mausoleum.
Before you get too comfortable though, a tomb can also be a standalone sarcophagus outdoors.
A crypt is similar to an indoor tomb, but these are underneath a building such as a church. Important members of a community or congregation would be placed there.
The first crypt I ever went to was in Dublin, Ireland in Christ Church Cathedral. Originally built by the vikings in 1082 it is the oldest working place of worship in Dublin.
The crypt itself is from the 12th century and has been restored to show many artifacts from the church’s history…and of course it’s very possible its haunted by the ghost of a solider from the 19th century.
The man who is likely named Sir Samuel was accidentally locked in a tunnel that connected to the crypt, and it wouldn’t be opened for an entire year. His skeleton was found against the door, devoured by rats, with his hand on his sword. Before being discovered, Samuels grave was in that crypt, but not intentionally, which is what makes it such a fascinating story.
As I mentioned earlier, graves that are known about are marked in order to show remains are present in an area.
So what are those markers called? Most commonly they are referred to as: gravestones, headstones, tombstones and ledger stones. Throughout this podcast I will likely use these terms interchangeably but, I wanted to tell you their differences anyway so you have the correct terminology.
A gravestone is any marker at a grave. They are most common in Christian, Jewish and Muslim burials and usually stone but can also be metal or wood.
A headstone is a type of gravestone, that is placed at one end of a grave where the head of the body would be, and is accompanied by a smaller stone known as a foot-stone. Because of space issues, foot-stones aren’t really used anymore, but they are interesting to come across.
A tombstone is a gravestone that marks a tomb or burial chamber OR one of those standalone sarcophagus. They look like caskets, or are an altar type shape.
And a ledger-stone is a flat stone that lays flush with the ground and traditionally cover the entire length of the body area, but over time they are getting smaller. These are growing in popularity as they are less likely to be damaged by lawn mowers throwing rocks around.
Gravestones are like the covers of biographies. Some have great names we recognize, while others are sparse and beginning to fade away, but they all contain a story, and that story begins with the type of grave, the shape of the headstone or marker, and also what symbolism adorns it.
So let’s talk shapes shall we?
The three most iconic headstone shapes are the rectangle upright, the gothic upright and the classical upright. When you think of halloween or a graveyard, these are the stones you probably picture, though I will include pictures with this episode on Instagram so you can get a better idea.
It was these gravestones in a place called Greyfriars kirkyard in Edinburgh, that inspired the deck this podcast is about. A Kirkyard just means graveyard in Scotland. This iconic and magical place will be featured in the Cemetery episode, but Greyfriars has many monuments in what is known as the post-reformation style, and its during this time the elaborate language of grave symbolism begins to take hold.
The main themes of these decorative emblems were mortality and immortality. Salvation through god and heaven was VERY important.
I am going to give you a run down of some of these starting with mortality:
Coffin: I guess the gravestone itself wasn’t enough to show the world that you were dead, you needed to let them know you were in a box underneath. But in all seriousness, I think this symbol was used to denote the ritual of death, like funeral rites.
Sometimes the coffin is surrounded by tools known as Sexton’s tools, and this means the person buried there was a grave digger or groundskeeper themselves.
A broken column: This symbol shows when a life was cut short. You don’t see them so much on children’s graves, but rather adults who died suddenly,
Died Bell: A died bell, or mort bell, is a common symbol in Britain, and it represents the bell that was rung to gather a funeral possession.
The death’s head is a common symbol of the puritans. Boy were they a depressing lot. They believed that only a few chosen people were allowed into heaven, and the rest were doomed to just rot in the ground forever - no afterlife, for you, sorry. These heads basically depict you…or what’s left of you…..
Grim Reaper: These depictions typically mean, the reaper came for you, you couldn’t outrun him, and so here you are: dead.
Father Time: This guy is similar to the grim reaper and he basically controls the amount of time you have on earth. How much, what it’ll be like…you get the gist.
Empty Chair: This is one of the symbols I am dying to see in person. They seem to be common in the Victorian era, and represent the vacant feeling your loved ones have being on earth without you. Now these shouldn’t be confused with an exedra, which is a stone bench gravestone that can actually be sat on. These chairs are purely decorative.
Immortality or Salvation Symbols all have an underlying theme of being taken to heaven. Getting your proverbial reward, if you will.
Angels and Cherubs are a big one. These are the ones who will great you after you die and take you to heaven.
Crown: You wouldn’t immediately assume a crown is an immortality symbol, but it is. It represents the righteousness of the person and their obvious descent to heaven. Of course though this symbol is reserved for royalty or high ranking officials.
Lamps or Lanterns: These light sources represent God himself. He will bring you out of the darkness and into the light and clarity of heaven.
Wheels: When on a gravestone, the wheel is talking about the endless force of the divine, or god. But When the wheel is broken, it becomes a mortality symbol meaning that your life rhas stopped turning.
Resurrection Scenes and Trumpets: These represent the call for the dead to ascend to heaven. If you’re familiar with Tarot, you know this scene well in Judgement card.
As we move towards the Victorian Era, grave symbolism becomes more elaborate and expands in theme. It's not all skulls and scythes anymore. Gentler depictions begin to emerge, mainly in the form of flora and fauna.
I will be talking a lot about Flora symbols in the Wreath episode, but on graves they tell us about the beauty of life and the person who’s resting place they adorn.
Daisies and other flower buds generally mean the grave is of a child. They didn’t get the chance to develop into the full bloom of adulthood.
Lilies: The Lily is an iconic funeral flower even today, and a very popular choice for the Victorians.
Primrose: The evening primrose is one of my favourite flowers. Its bloom open at night, and close in the morning. The night and darkness is typically thought of as a the realm of the dead, so it’s very fitting for a headstone.
Thistle: The thistle is the national symbol for Scotland, so you will see these on the graves of Scottish immigrants in North America.
The Weeping Willow is another popular emblem in the Victorian era. It represents the sadness and grief your loved ones feel that you are no longer with them.
When it comes to Fauna, the depictions are chosen based on the qualities they share with a person. Animal symbolism and worship spans across all cultures and times, and we still use this language in our daily lives, even if we don’t always think of it. A popular example of this is “he’s as sly as a fox.”
Bears on gravestones often mean someone was active in converting others to christianity. I was surprised when I learned this, because when I think of bears I think of motherly love or bravery. Mostly my association is that of the myth of Callisto and Arcas who are now the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor
Elephants are an extremely rare symbol in western graveyards and represent someone who was an explorer or spent a lot of time in the British colonies.
Horse: As we learned in the first episode of this podcast, the horse is a symbol of abundance, fertility, domestication, paganism, and so on. Another we can add to this list is free-spiritedness. On a gravestone a horse can mean a go between good and evil.
Sometimes, images depict a pet, or someone who loves or worked with a particular animal. This is frequently why you will see cats and dogs monuments outside of a pet cemetery.
Scripture and latin sayings are another popular choice for resting places. These almost always are there to comfort the cemetery visitor, rather than give information about the person in the grave.
I want to leave you with one to wrap up this first part of our Grave episode, and that is: dum tacet clamat: though silent, he speaks.
So I know that was A LOT of information to get at once and we barely scratched the surface, but I hope I clarified a few things for you before we get into grave stories next week in part two.
Some of the terminology here may be slightly different than what you’re familiar with because I tried to take the most common meanings and simplify them. Things like tombs and maseolems can have multiple definitions depending on where they are and who is talking about it.
Thanks for listening, and I will see you back here next week for part two!
Episode music (second song) by: AShamaluev Music - No copyright Music