As it's Halloween, it's only natural to go spooky.
But since I am very easily frightened and creeped out, this will not be a post about ghost stories (I have a few) or all the things I'm scared of (remember the clown spider?). Rather, I thought I'd talk about graveyards.
Because the thing is: I quite like a good graveyard. Not so much the modern ones we see today, but tumbledown tombstones in an old English churchyard, or cemeteries with a bit of history and interest.
When I was in England doing my Ph.D., I once lived next to an old church and its graveyard. It was peaceful and quiet, and very few people could be found there, and so I quite often took a blanket and my books, settled down in the midst of the tombstones, and did a bit of research and reading.
One of my best friends in England did his thesis on Roman burial, and I did quite a lot of study on the subject as part of my coursework and on the represenations of women on Roman tombstones for my own thesis. And once again, I enjoyed the topic and found what could be found on the tombstones particularly interesting. Indeed, the title of this post is taken from a rough translation of a frequent preceding phrase on Roman burial stones: Dis Manibus Sacrum, also loosely translated as "To the memory of..." or "Sacred to the Spirit-Gods."
I also engaged in the fun activity of tombstone and brass rubbings, where you lay a sheet of paper on the tombstone or brass plaque and using crayon or charcoal, rub an impression of the inscription and images onto your sheet of paper. (I realize this makes me out to be an even bigger dork than I've already admitted to being...)
My visits to Italy, Greece and France all involved hitting some of the ancient burial sites, including the catacombs in Paris and outside Rome. And a hugely creep-inducing ossuary in Rome at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, where the bones of over 4,000 monks have been used to create decorative displays, fittings and fixtures or kept articulated and wearing monks' robes like some horrific fiend come to life out of a scary movie.
And I've always loved Edward Gorey and his hilariously macabre drawings. Especially the ones from the intro to PBS's Mystery and in particular the bit with the lady swooning on a large stone tomb.
There are a few really atmospheric cemeteries around where I live now. East Hill Cemetery bears many of the graves of Bristol's early residents, along with a section for Confederate soldier burials. Citizens Cemetery, an old African American cemetery, is found at the top of a steep hill off Piedmont Avenue. Once overrun by tangles of weeds and vines, it has now been largely cleared so that the tombstones are visible and more easily taken care of, and you can see that people take pride in the markers and paths. I often take Chloe and Wallace up to this cemetery when I am dogsitting, and again it is a place I find wonderfully peaceful. Then there is the Sinking Spring cemetery in nearby Abingdon, an 18th-century cemetery with many crumbling graves and even a turf-covered mausoleum with iron-barred gate at its entrance. Definitely spooky!
Harking back to my post earlier this week, here's something else you probably don't know about me: I have a favorite tombstone. Don't you? But seriously, epitaphs on tombstones can be fantastically eccentric and interesting, and one in England has stayed with me all these years. In the graveyard of Malmesbury Abbey can be found the tombstone of a barmaid named Hannah Twynnoy, who died in 1703. And here's the unfortunate girl's epitaph:
In bloom of Life
She's snatchd from hence,
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay,
Until the Resurrection Day.
What I love about this tombstone is obviously the wonderfully fantastical death for an English barmaid in the 18th century, but also that someone cared enough to put up a proper -- and probably quite expensive -- gravestone to her memory and to write this lyrical bit of morbid poetry for her.
(Btw, apparently she was teasing the tiger continuously and it finally broke out of its cage and ate her right up. There's a lesson there for all of us.)
And so, there you have it. My weird love for overgrown graveyards and tombstones. Next time you pass a cemetery, think of me.
Photo 1: Citizens Cemetery in Bristol on a fall day.
Photo 2: Scary monk ossuary. This is the thing that nightmares are made of... (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capuchinos_2.jpg)
Photo 3: I bet she never imagined she'd be talked about in the 21st century. That's what happens when you pull a tiger's tail. (http://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/people_hannah_twynnoy.html)