Romancing Gravestones

on Friday, January 05, 2007

If you like this post, you might like to visit my fellow grave vulture, Dave.
Fort A' Formosa, Melaka

I am not sure when my fascination with graveyards started. It seems I have always had that interest. Perhaps it was when I visited the ruins of the Portugese fort, A’Formosa, in the ancient trade city of Melaka. I was quite young then, maybe about 8 years old. The fort had once defended the Portugese dominance of spice trade and control of the vital shipping lanes in the Straits of Malacca.

Anyway, there are some large tombstones that can be found leaning against one of the walls of the fort. These were marked in Portugese and Dutch. The Portugese built the fort after defeating the Sultan of Melaka in 1511. The Dutch were to in turn expel the Portugese in 1641. I was mesmerized. I ran my fingers along its eroded carvings, trying to make out the letters and the words, piecing together a puzzle into a story. I wondered who they were, how they had felt being so far from home in essentially an exciting but dangerous place and I wondered how they had died. These questions would remain unanswered since I could neither read Dutch nor Portugese. Yet, my mind was alive with visions of these youthful adventurers, soldiers and their possibly reluctant wives and families.

Dutch graves in Bogor, Indonesia
It was when I studied in England, that I advanced this hobby further. There I was introduced to the practice of taking brass rubbings of tombstones which made me also appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of some of these tombs and markers. However, in England I felt empowered to learn more about the stories behind the tombstones because I understood the language and there were usually good supporting historical records.

Nicholas Gaynesford, esquire of the body to Edward IV and Henry VII, and wife Margaret, gentlewoman to Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her daughter Elizabeth of York, c. 1485, Carshalton, Surrey

One adventure into the past took place in a small Oxfordshire village which I happened to stop at while traveling along the Oxford Canal by canal boat. I came across a small but ancient English church with a lovely churchyard with many gravesites. However, it was in the church itself that I made an interesting discovery. There was a plaque on the west wall of the church that had names of some of the Pastors that had served at the church. What stood out was the fact that over a short two year period in the 1350’s, there had been at least 6 different pastors. Why did this happen? Was it a period of dispute within the church? I was fortunate that when I asked one of the local parishioners, he was able to explain the history behind the plaque.

It seems it was related to the coming of the Black Death. In many neighboring villages, the people and the priests fled when the disease began to appear in their areas. However in this village, the pastor saw it as his duty to stay with the sick and tend to them. Not surprisingly, he himself fell ill and died a few months later. His subsequent replacements were similarly inspired by his example and they all stayed to minister to the sick and those who could not flee. In quick succession they too shared in his fate. I felt honored to learn about these men and their selflessness and am glad that a record of their deeds is etched in stone.

It was in another country village in Sussex, England, that I would make my most unsettling and yet poignant find to date. It was autumn and it was wet and dreary as I made my way through this small cemetery. This was not particularly well kept and there was lots of fallen branches, overgrown bushes and decaying leaves all over the place. There were parts where low hanging branches forced you to bend over to proceed. The damp decay of autumn can make a graveyard appear to be a less friendly place. I was not expecting to find much of interest as the graves were relatively new.

Then, I stumbled across it and was physically shocked. There was something black and rotting sitting next to a gravestone. It was about a foot high. I had goosebumps. Swallowing hard, I plucked the courage to go closer. Fortunately, the dark shape never moved. When I got close enough, it still took me a moment or two to comprehend what I was seeing. Finally, I realized that the dark shape was actually made out of wicker which had been tightly woven into the shape of a teddy bear. The wicker had gone dark and was rotted in places giving it a very macabre look. Even more bizarre, was the fact that the wicker bear was hugging fresh flowers.

The grave was for a young girl who had died at age 6 and was only about two years old. I suppose the grieving parents had a wicker bear made to accompany their child in her slumber and to watch over her grave. They probably visit regularly and place fresh flowers. It is always so sad when a child dies. The parents’ grief was still evident. I was quite overwhelmed by the scene. However, even today, thinking of that black, rotting bear still gives me the creeps.


...Kat said...

Ruins and Graveyards

Growing up, always playing in the nearby woods where there was an old family plot and tombstones gave me an early impression and appreciation for the finality of things and also too how life and the world goes on amid loss.....

When I lived in Panama I visited Fort San Lorenzo and found it to be so beautiful and intriguing....the many walls of stones, the old stones covered in mosses, the cannons, the small dark rooms....trying to take steps backward in time in my mind to imagine the day to day life and activities there.

When you mentioned the many pastors...I immediately thought of the Plague

Ellie said...

I never thought graveyards could be interesting! But reading your post did intrigue me just a bit.

My parents have been known to go look at graveyards and I never could understand their fascintation with it. They are, however, looking for anscesters, and have traveled to Pennsylvania from Ohio just to find some ancester's grave.

The "plain people's" graveyards are stark and cold and the headstones are extremely plain with nothing really artistic or interesting to them. Nobody puts any flowers on graves and they rarely go visit loved one's graves.

It is an interesting hobby you have acquired! I will give you that!

Oh, and I did post a rather lengthy reply to your comment on my wild child post.


adelym said...

Ellie if you ever get a chance come to Malaysia and have a look at the graveyards here. They are beautiful. Some of the occupants have grave plots that looks like a mansion. This can only be seen in the Chinese graveyards. See if LGS can post so pictures for you. In Malaysia the funeral is making good business as nowadays most of the "baby boomers" are found to be near to end of their life.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

sounds like fun growing up with your own woods and small graveyard!! On the plague, you were sharper than I.

I haven't seen a plain people's graveyard but the Moravian and Plymouth Brethren are similar in their very stark and plain gravestones. These can be powerful too as it testifies to their beliefs in austerity, simpleness and trust in God. I've seen some very ornate tombs (e.g. Habsburgs in Austria) artistically beautiful but clearly done with a fear of death.

Thanks for reminding me about chinese cemeteries. Strangely, I have no photos of them. Perhaps its something you could help me out with in the future. Also like the reminder that Baby - boomers are nearing their expiry date. ha ha!

Le Nightowl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Le Nightowl said...

I loved your story about the wicker teddy bear.
The little graveyard in my hometown is very ancient and certainly holds many stories. I often walk in there on my way to my parents (I mean, my parents are still alive, but the churchyard in on my way there) and I often muse about the people who died so long ago. The children's graves are of course heart-renting sights.
If you ever come to France, you really must visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery
A photographer friend of mine created an impressive collection of images.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thank you very much. I will be spending a lot of time browsing through your friend's collection of photos from Pere Lachaise Cemetery. His/her photos show wonderful attention to detail.

Le Nightowl said...

You're welcome, LGS!
Your latest comment on Josie's blog made me laugh :)))

adelym said...

Will send you some photos of the Malaysian Cemetry... kind of interesting some of it.

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