‘places consecrated to God [should] be venerated by all, and by no
means profaned or in any way violated by a jarring or unsuitable
activity, whether in working, jesting or playing …; [there should be] no
laughter, shouting, immoderate mirth, indecent and indiscreet dances,
indecent mockeries and harmful plays proper to the market-place or the
stage’: letter of Bishop Edmund Lacy of Exeter, 1451
Old churchyards enshrine vast amounts of personal and social
history, although most of it, sadly, is not recoverable.
Furthermore, they often display a romantic and touching beauty.
When exploring villages and towns in all parts of Britain, many of us have
been moved by the sight of a raised platform of hummocky turf
surrounding an ancient Christian church, walled and gated, crossed by
narrow paths, shaded by mature trees, dotted with leaning headstones
and lichened table-tombs, perhaps with the weathered stump of a
medieval preaching cross. Above all we are impressed by the thought
that most of the local population, over many centuries, lies here, ‘each in
his narrow cell for ever laid’. For example, a rural churchyard of half an
acre at Widford in Hertfordshire is estimated to hold more than 5,000
burials, laid to rest over a period of at least 900 years. Such places have
witnessed many solemn rituals: consecration by a bishop, occasional
claims of sanctuary, sad clusters of mourners around open graves, the
commemorative prayers and bell-ringing of All Saints' and All Souls'
days, parochial processions on Palm Sunday or Corpus Christi, and at all
periods the lonely vigils of the bereaved. Repeatedly opened and re-filled
by generations of gravediggers, churchyards are potent reminders of
human mortality which the living have mostly treated with respect, deep
reflection and some superstition.