Sunday, 11 February 2007

Epitaphs - window on the world

You go into a church. A little village church, anywhere in England. It's not full of art works, it's architecturally undistinguished - a mishmash of styles added over the ages, from the norman door to the Victorian vestry with its quirky chimney pot. It's any little church, not interesting at all, really.

Until you start reading the walls. Because I can almost guarantee that the walls will be covered in monuments. And while the tombstones in the pavement often just carry a name and a date, those on the walls tell a story.

Sometimes it's the story that the dead man wanted to tell about himself. In high flown language, with an oratorical flourish. Sometimes the contrast between the reality and the poetic words is so great it makes you smile. One tomb which praises the sunny temperament and charitable tendencies of the deceased is topped by the bust of a grim, tight-faced miser.

Then there's the clever epitaph. Christopher Wren, I think, has the best, in St Paul's, the cathedral he built; Si monumentum requiris, circumspice - if you need a monument, look around you.

Other epitaphs make us laugh with their bluntly unvarnished approach to life and death. You'd expect a witty poet to come up with a good one, and John Gay, buried in Westminster Abbey, doesn't disappoint:

Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once and now I know it.

My favourite was always old As-I-Am in Norwich cathedral, a friendly skeleton who poetically announced:

All you that do this place pass by

Remember death for you must dye.
As you are now even so was I.
And as I am so that you be.
Thomas Gooding here do staye
Waiting for Gods judgement daye.

But sometimes, epitaphs open up our eyes to a lost world. I remember visiting a little church in Herefordshire. Down a tree-lined avenue past the church you could just see the manor house; many of the tombs in the church belonged to the family who had lived there.

Then I realised how many of them dated from the early nineteenth century. I did a little drawing out the family tree in the back of my notebook, and four or five of them were brothers. None of them had died in England. One had died at sea, in the Navy; one in India, where he was a colonial administrator; one I think in Egypt.

Imagine England of that time. A country that had just come out of the Napoleonic war, that had begun to thrive on seafaring trade, that sponsored exploration, that had discovered a new world in India and the East. This family, for me, was a window into that world; a world that my history  education had skipped (we went straight from Charles II to Hitler). You could almost write a novel about these brothers - how from this little village, a stereotype English village with its squires living in the mansion and a little church at their gates, they found their destinies in far flung regions of the earth.

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