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Dem Bones Gonna Walk Around

April 19, 2012

Popular ideas of burial practice are, like so much of our history, framed by the practices and records of the Victorians. A coach with plumed horses, grieving friends and relatives riding to the final, safe resting place in a large municipal, cemetery. But long before such order had been achieved, there was a long and often bitter struggle for the proper disposal of human remains, especially in Bristol whose inner city churchyards had become dangerously crowded by the mid 18th century. A letter printed in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal on 14 January 1764 is worth quoting at length to show what was happening at the time.
“Enough, and more than enough, has been said by others concerning the Abuses committed in Cemeteries or Burial-Grounds: I do not propose to myself the invidious Task of pointing out Abuses, but the Means of remedying them to shew not what Church-Yards at present too generally are, but what they ought to be.
Church-Yards were set apart in the most early Times as Repositories for the Dead, the Ground itself consecrated, so separated from common Uses, devoted solely to that Purpose, not prostituted to any other. Here I need not mention the Care taken of the Patriarchs Bones and long before the Christian Aera the Shrines of Ancestors were held sacred, and even in the Times of Heathenism,

“To erect a Tomb and to inscribe the Stone,
was the general, prevailing Custom, to perpetuate the Memory of deceased Friend. And such a Veneration paid to the Dead, has an excellent food Effect on the Minds of the Living. In later Times, they carried it so far, as to degenerate into superstition; Vast Treasure was spent on pompous Monuments: Obits and Dirges were celebrated fro the Souls of the Departed; and it can be proved, that many Estates were settled to no other Use than for Prayers to be perpetually said for the Soul of those, buried in churches and church-yards, especially in that of which there have lately been such Disputes.

It must be acknowledged, that it is a Kind of Consolation for the Loss of a dear Friend to erect some Memorial of them, however small and inconsiderable – and I confess, I cannot approach the silent Tomb or Monument of such, without a Kind of religious Awe and Veneration:- And such a Disposition should be early cultivated and indulged, as it would be attended with the good Effect of impressing on the Mind the Instability of human Life, and the certain Transition there will be to another; the Exchange of the “soul’s dark Cottage” here for an “House eternally lasting and immortal – but I forget myself! I preach – I seldom visit a Country Place, but I presently repair to the Church-yard from my Inn,
To muse on the short Memorials of the Dead,
Where one reads a short history of the Inhabitants of the whole Place, viz., “that they lived and that they died” – Their Place, Family, Fortune, in this Life &C. – And if as the Poet sweetly sings,

Ev’n from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires:One cannot help dropping a pious Tear over the Grave of a Good Man, and paying such a small Tribute to his Memory, while wrapt into such a pleasing Reveree (sic) of Thought and Meditation:

Beneath yon lofty Elms, that Yew Trees shade,
Where heaves the Turf in many a mould’ring Heap,
Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid,
The good forefathers of the Parish sleep;
Yet ev’n those Bones from insult to protect,
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck’t,
Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh:
Their Names, their Years, spelt by the unletter’d Muse,
The Place of Fame and Elegy supply;
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

To deface, or to pay no Regard to the Preservation of such Memorials of the Dead, is very wrong and censurable – but which is the best Method of keeping church-yards in Order, and preserving them? It is doubtless the Business of the proper Officer of the church, to which they belong (unless such Office like many others be made Sine-Cure) – to keep the TURF neat, the stones and Monuments clean, not over-grown with Weeds and Nettles, nor suffered to be abused by rude Boys – to prevent Horses and other Animals from passing thro’ ‘em, much more from feeding there, for it is very unfit and unseemly the Repositories of human Remains should be ever made the Pastures or Dormitories of Beasts, which however is often the Case in the Country, for the whole Spot is often covered with the rankest Weeds; and if there be a few Morsels of Herbage uncovered by Weeds, some hungry half starved horse or Ass is turned in to eat it up and trample upon the Graves of the deceased – Care should be taken also not only that the Turf, in the whole Place be kept neat, and the Grass low, but also each fresh grave should be turfed – and as I have seen in the Country, twigged across to keep it on and secure it there; unless where a flat Stone be put down on the grave – and there the Grass or Weeds should not be suffered to grow and propagate to hide the Inscription – The BORDER-STONES of each Grave should be well fastened if loose; and the Tombs of Families extinct might be allowed to others, provided they keep them in Repair, not erasing the Names of the old Family, but rather cutting them afresh, and adding those of their own, as they bury – the Bones thrown up in digging Graves should be decently put aside together, and when the fresh Corps is laid in, should be buried again with it, not be kicking about as usual, and some left above Ground, not put into Skull Houses or the like, the Mother Earth being the proper Receptacle for human Relicks – The Inscriptions should be carefully preserved and held sacred.
By these and a few other such Regulations made, filling our Churches with dead Bodies would be less in Request, and no one but would approve of the Churchyard as well, which would thus become a pleasant Spot, a WALK amusing, instructive and inviting to the seriously disposed, would rather grace than deform the Fronts of the House, that look into them;: In short, after all, the Whole is no more than a Duty we owe the Dead there deposited – VERAX”

This letter is clearly from a man of education and leisure, but was printed when the city’s graveyards were struggling to deal with the soaring numbers of people living and dying in the inner city, and pressure was mounting to ban the burials within the churches on health grounds. It seems to have been triggered by a scandal arising from alterations being made to the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe. The previous year a licence had been applied for to take down the churchyard cross described as “a very beautiful and artistic worked preaching cross”.

Until the end of the 17th century, the life of the church centred round it. Its removal followed improvements to the church, when the massive Hogarth triptych was commissioned, the churchyard lowered, its paths re-layed and walls and steps repaired. All of which sounds like a worthwhile exercise. The problem arose from allegations that the churchwarden, responsible for the fabric of the church, was carrying away the earth to make bricks. Given the high content of organic matter, it would make more sense to have used the earth for fertiliser, but in December Felix Farley’s Journal responded with

An EPIGRAM on seeing Part of a Churchyard hall’d away to make Bricks
When Ovid wrote in Days of Yore
The Feasts of JOVE the Conjurer
Strange Things he told; how Flesh and Bones
Would at his Nod turn into Stones,
Though Conjurors are out of Fashion
In this and every Christian Nation,
Yet Cunning J*e can ape his tricks
And Flesh and Bones turn into Bricks
The following week’s paper replied:
Innocent J*e Reply to the Charge of Cunning
And Conjuring in the Brick-making Epigram
Avaunt, Ill-Nature, Malice, Spite
I act above Board, walk in White
Envy itself defy, to find
The least foul Speck, in my fair Mind
My Deeds, in Profit’s Scales are weigh’d;
And Bricks, are Bricks, however made
A week later, yet more argumentative poetry
I’ve let my ard, and sold my clay
And he, that likes to burn it, may
A Lease granted, and Possession taken
Come, buy my Bricks,
My Arts, my Tricks,
For since I sold my Clay,
Death’s fatal Summons
Chills my Bones
And I must soon obey.
I’ve prey’d on all,
Both Great and Small,
Never pity’d Mother’s Son;
I’ve pinch’d the Poor,
To swell my Store,
But those Days are gone.
I’ve fill’d my Purse,
Oh, what a Curse!
Who, for the Lease, did call!
Haste, quick, restore,
Feed, cloath the Poor,
For ‘tis the Devil, and all.

Even in today’s cynical, secular world when cremation is far more the norm, it is not hard to see what all the fuss was about – bricks are not just bricks if they are made of ones departed friends and relatives. And there is something distinctly unpleasant about an officer of the church making money out of his fellows in this way.

Most people still believed then – sometimes passionately – in the Day of Judgement and Resurrection, and it mattered that their bones were kept entire in anticipation of it. One element of capital punishment was that the criminal would be handed to the surgeons to be dissected, so denying him a chance to enter heaven for eternal life. In London there were sometimes riots at executions when relatives and friends tried to rescue the body.

Gravediggers were generally seen as the lowest of the low, but St Mary’s seems to be rather exceptional – rumoured this was written by Chatterton.
“Being old and having enjoyed my Place many a long Year, I have buried or rather dug the Graves fro one Half of our Parish, and could tell to an inch, where and how their Bodies lie, and are ranged under ground – and by this my Skill am always consulted by my Master, the Sexton, where such and such a Family are interred, and have never failed of giving great Satisfaction in the Discharge of my Office – But alas! I am like to be robbed, at once, of all my Knowledge, procured at the Expense of so man Years close Study and Application to Business: for you must know, my HEAD MASTER, a great Projector, has taken it into his Head to level the Church-yard, and by digging and throwing about his Clay there, and defacing the stones, makes such Confusion among the Dead, and will so puzzle me, if he goes on, that no Man living will be able to find where to lay them properly, and then he may dig the Graves himself, for I foresee, I shall get the ill-will of the Parish about it: For even the Poor love to bury with their Kindred; And all’s but right that they should. I should be glad therefore to know the Sense of the Public, whether any Body has a just Right, or needful Call to dig in the Churchyard, besides.
FULLFORD, the Gravedigger

P.S. As I intend dropping the Business o Grave-digger, now rendered so very troublesome, I propose renting my old Spot of Ground in the church-yard, when the Green Turf is all removed, and, for Decency’s Sake, will prevent the naked Appearance of it, by planting Potatoes, raising some fine Beds of Onions &c. as the Mould is fat and good – And I see no Reason why I may not get a profitable Job out of the church, as well as my GREAT MASTER – as I find that’s the Game nowadays – the Decency, Convenience of the like be the Pretence.”

Also removed was a conduit head and housing, and a building nesting against the south west corner of the church. Originally the Chapel of the Holy Ghost, post Reformation this became Queen Elizabeth’s Free Grammar School. The school moved to the church’s lady chapel. In April during demolition, a thick-walled freestone coffin containing a full skeleton w found with carving on the lid of a man in prayer.

The following year the reason for all these improvements becomes clear – void ground in the churchyard was laid out for some fine new houses, one including a Great Room with fine plasterwork ceiling of Colston’s Arms, for meetings of the vestry. It was initially rented to the Sexton on condition the room was available when required for meetings and dinners.

All this suggests the parish was well supplied with burial space, so it comes as a great surprise to find the churchwardens in 1780 looking for ‘a proper piece of ground to be converted to a churchyard, the present being much too small for the use of the parish, part thereof being wanted for the use of a way lately made for the accommodation of houses on Colston Parade. The new road had a locked gate at either end, so this was a very early gated community. The rent from the houses generated an important source of income for a church which was, like all the others in the area, falling into decay. But there is something distinctly unpleasant about this forcing parishioners to be buried elsewhere in order to accommodate wealthy carriages.

In 1790 as the Sunday School Movement to educate and control unruly children on Sundays was struggling to find support in Bristol, St Mary’s had its share of problems. Churchwardens were to ‘employ a constable to keep the churchyard free of boys and idle persons on Sunday.’ He was to be supplied with a hat, great coat and staff and was paid 2/6 per day.

Totally unconnected, but worthy of note: “it is agreed that the Ringers be discontinued ringing at this church until they have made a Public Apology for their ill behaviour to the duke of York upon his last visit to the city’ 29 March 1796. Sounds like the constable should have been on patrol inside the church as well.

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