The mystery of two wonderful examples of medieval memento mori

I found the article below in the Church Times and thought that I would share it with you.  Although on first glance they may look a little macabre, I saw them as lovely examples of medieval iconogrpahy.  In many ways they are also very touching.  I love the mystery surrounding them as well.

Shrouded skeletons on brasses in medieval Durham church investigated

02 MARCH 2018



The two shrouded figures displayed on brasses at St Edmund’s, Sedgefield

PUBLIC curiosity about two shrouded skeletons in a medieval church has led to an investigation into their origins.

The figures — believed to be male and female — are depicted on brasses displayed on the wall at 13th-century St Edmund’s, Sedgefield, in Co. Durham, which is Grade I listed. The plates are singular in that they portray skeletons: normally, the figure is a likeness of the person in the tomb.

Little is known about them, and the Friends of St Edmund’s are trying to find out more. “We are asked about the origin of the skeletons on a fairly regular basis, and it would be nice to have an explanation for people who visit the church,” Alison Hodgson, a local historian and the secretary of the group, said.

They hope that documents held in the archives of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne will shed some light, and are aware of one record which says that the two figures were once on a tomb that had a shield and ribbon above, and a border — probably with an inscription — around the edge.

Brian Mutch, a churchwarden and the Friends’ membership secretary, is leading the investigation. “We don’t know how long they have been in the church,” he said. “One document from 1896 says they were there then; so we will have to go further back. There is no indication as to how old they are, but all the others in the church date from the 1300s; so it is quite likely they come from then.

“It is possible they were on a tomb in the north transept, but that has been altered two or three times over the years. However, we do have two stone effigies in the south transept — one of a man and the other of a woman — and I wonder if it is them. There are records of noble families in the area giving patronage to the church, but we have yet to examine them.

“There is a lot more work to do. I don’t know how long it will take, but we shall persevere.”

A mother and daughter’s last good-bye?

Welcome to 2019! and we begin with an unusual variation on a common funerary symbol which I recently discovered in Brompton Cemetery


The shaking hands symbol on the Chesterton memorial in Brompton Cemetery. Note the male/female cuffs.
©Carole Tyrrell

One of the most common symbols in a large Victorian cemetery is that of the shaking or clasped  hands.

Usually, most of the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open. This is often interpreted as a man holding a woman’s hand which could indicate marriage or a close bond between two individuals. Clasped hands are also symbolic of a farewell or last good-bye. If you look at the cuffs of each hand you can soon guess who is the man and who is the woman as the latter usually has a frilly cuff.

There are also several other explanations of this image: the clasped hands may mean ‘Farewell’, marriage, or the that first one to die holds the surviving spouse’s hand guiding them to heaven. If on a family tomb they can mean either hope or reunification in the next life or simply ‘see you soon’ which may not be as comforting as it sounds with the Victorians high mortality rate.

But, while pottering about in Brompton Cemetery over Christmas and New Year, I found this variation on the theme.  It’s undoubtedly two women shaking hands in farewell as each has a frilly cuff and is remarkably well carved.

The cross and hands in full.
©Carole Tyrrell

At the base of the cross there is an inscription saying ‘In Loving Memory of our Beloved Mother.’  Beneath that at the very base of the monument there is a date, a name and the age at death.

It was such a cold day that I didn’t loiter too long except to take photos but I am intrigued enough to plan to do further research.  Brompton Cemetery’s burial records have been digitised which is very helpful and once I have the name and date of death I should know more.

Watch this space….

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell


The mysterious mourner of West Norwood Cemetery


Spring time view of the Howard monument 21 April 2018 – note daffodils on ledge.
©Carole Tyrrell

Where do you go to grieve when there’s no memorial with which to remember them?

I can’t recall exactly when I first spotted the floral tribute in a jam jar placed on a ledge of the Howard monument in West Norwood Cemetery.  The memorial is near the columbarium and over the last 2 or 3 years I began to make a habit of looking to see what flowers would be in the jam jar this time.  There were never any accompanying cards or identification, just the flowers and sometimes a tea light. They were always fresh.

The bright colours of the flowers always stood out against the pale plaster on the monument behind them and often provided a wonderful photo opportunity.

The Howard monument is a handsome and large one with two magnificent downturned torches on each of its four sides and a fulsome epitaph above the flowers.


But who put them there? A mysterious mourner like the black clad visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave? A descendant of the family marking a special day?

It was at the West Norwood Open Day in July 2018 I finally met the mystery mourner.  As I walked past on my way to the columbarium, she was arranging a new bunch of flowers in their jam jar and we got chatting.

She was a local woman, let’s call her Mary, and was nothing to do with the Howards at all. Instead her flowers and tea lights commemorated a loved one who’d been cremated a long way away.  We talked about where do you go to grieve if you have no permanent memorial or your deceased loved one is too faraway to visit.

She mentioned the mourning process and said that she used to come everyday but now it was less often. ‘It doesn’t mean that you don’t think about them but it’s not quite so raw. You start to move on.’ she said and added ‘You can get caught up in it.’  I mentioned Queen Victoria’s extended mourning period after Prince Albert died. At some point, at which only the mourning would know, they will become a cherished memory  and the outward mourning begins to fade. I didn’t ask her why she’d chosen that particular monument but maybe she had her own reasons.

When my father unexpectedly died, it had been difficult for me to grieve as I had nowhere tangible to go and so, like Mary, I did adopt an angel in a nearby Victorian cemetery as my mourning place.  There was something about being in a place where the outpouring of grief was unashamed and open with the need to have a permanent memorial that said I was here.  It felt more appropriate that the neatly trimmed municipal cemeteries. I felt drawn to it although he’d never been there.

But the old cliché is true in that time is a great healer, life does go on and the dead live in our hearts in the ways in which we choose to remember them.  With me I became a blood donor in my father’s memory as he had also been one.

One day Mary may no longer feel the need to leave a floral tribute to her departed friend and it will have served its purpose. I will miss passing the Howard monument to see what flowers are in the jamjar this time.

RIP Mary’s friend whoever and wherever you were.  I hope you know that Mary always remembered you and that you were not forgotten.

Fresh flowers at the Howard monument. July 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

The Unknown Mourner of West Norwood – update on blog published on 31/10/15


Before and after cleaning


I recently visited West Norwood Cemetery to see their celebrated catacombs.  They are well worth seeing if you have the chance but please note that you must be a member of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery to be able to visit them.  This is for Health and Safety and insurance reasons. While I was waiting for the rest of the participants to arrive I looked around for the recumbent statue of the Unknown Mourner.

This is a large statue of a naked, prostate mourning woman which was, when I first saw her, was under some bushes on the forecourt in front of the main entrance gates.   Then she moved inside the gates and I next saw her lying on some waste ground during renovations.  No-one knows, or is probably ever likely to know, to which grave she belongs.  The Unknown Mourner is undoubtedly a victim of Lambeth Council’s notorious clearances of West Norwood during the 1960’s.  They just bulldozed anything , including listed memorials and  monuments, without any recordkeeping  until they were stopped by an ecclesiastical court.

But this time the Mourner was a gleaming pristine white which has revealed details of the sculpture that I’d never noticed before. I had always assumed that she was meant to be the uniform dull grey as that was the colour of the stone but what a difference a good clean has made.  However,  it’s unfortunate that  discoloured water has gathered by her feet which make it look as if she’s stepped in something nasty.  But  it’s such a pleasure to see her looking so good and basking in the sunshine in the middle of rose bushes.   Wherever her owner is within the cemetery I’m sure they would be pleased.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell – no reproduction without permission

The unknown mourner of West Norwood Cemetery

From West Norwood cemetery copyright Carole Tyrrell
From West Norwood cemetery
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is the voluptuous, but homeless, mourning woman of West Norwood cemetery. I first noticed her on a visit in 2013 when I found her under bushes in the front courtyard of the cemetery. I was immediately intrigued. After all, It’s not every day that you find a naked woman on her own with no identification. I emailed Colin Fenn of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery and he was kind enough to reply that no-one knew which grave or memorial she had originally belonged to.

This was because. in 1965. Lambeth Council made a compulsory purchase of the cemetery. Like the others in London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, the cemetery company that owned had gone bankrupt and left it to deteriorate. Lambeth then claimed ownership over the existing graves after extinguishing past rights. But even worse, they then embarked on a ‘lawn conversion’ which was a euphemistic term for a drastic and catastrophic clearance of the cemetery. As we know, some councils are very keen to make it easy for their parks and gardens department to mow round tombstones etc cemeteries and so they embarked on a free-for-all. Memorials, monuments, statues, – all were cleared away and smashed beyond repair. From old postcards it can be seen that the cemetery was heavily populated with weeping angels, crosses, mausolea, etc and it has been estimated that up to 10,000 monuments including some of the listed ones. The cemetery had been closed to new burials as it was full but Lambeth didn’t let this deter them and so they restarted new burials by reselling existing plots for re-use. As a result, the new burials were stopped and a handful of the damaged or memorials had to be restored. Lambeth were also required to publish an index of cleared and resold plots so the descendants of historic owners can identify and request restitution of their family’s plot.

But this poor lady has lost her place in the cemetery. She obviously had a place on which to grieve somewhere on the cemetery once but not now. She has a slightly Art Nouveau look about her so she may date from the turn of the century, perhaps around 1900. We are lucky that she hasn’t been stolen altogether as in other cemeteries.

Since then she has moved again, further inside the cemetery near the entrance which is where this photograph was taken.

And so she is condemned to grieve and mourn, now an anonymous memorial, a eternal symbol of sadness.

Acknowledgement: Wikipedia and Colin Fenn.

Text and photo copyright Carole Tyrrell


I was going through my memory cards recently and found some more photos of this lonely lady when she had been placed on the lawn at the front entrance of West Norwood cemetery.