It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment. And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.
There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides. But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well. Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s. They are buried in the vaults beneath the church. St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.
However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These tombstones are topped with classic memento mori symbols. This is Latin for ‘remember me.’ They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:
‘Remember Man as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Remember man that you must die.’
Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.
St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’
I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols. There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable. However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.
The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.
This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds. It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield. All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’
Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it. This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel. These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible. The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard. In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.
Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a definite smirk. On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them. Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.
Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other. Below them is a small worn hourglass. I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.
Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre ‘Death’s Head.’ This is a human face with wings on either side of it. I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.
I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones. However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable. The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby. It reads:
‘ ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘
A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side. The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.
On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown. It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven. This verse from the Bible refers to it:
James 1:12 New International Version (NIV)
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James%201:12
A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.
But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay. He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read. He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students. Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.
On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb. There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity. There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one. At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death. The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers. The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens. Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity. In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended. Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful motifs of mortality and resurrection.
St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable. It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard. However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’ 18th century symbols. But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated.
Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008
St George’s Churchyard, St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, Revised June 2005
St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, information leaflet,, October 2003
OLIVE: The olive is a true Biblical tree, a tree ‘full of fatness’ w