Quaker Burial Grounds and City Centre Hermits

Beside the towering shadow of Bristol’s St Mary Redcliffe church, sits an unassuming patch of grass, surrounded by trees and overlooked by an impressively unchanged 1980s bar.

From the outside, it looks like a poorly-planned public park. The type that council planners agree to install, to offset the ecological destruction of their building plans. However, this plot has far more stories to offer than its patch of grass and sticky benches suggest.

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The small community garden, now predominantly maintained by local residents, was used as a burial ground by Bristol’s Quaker population since 1667. The site was once double the size and housed thousands of burials, despite there only being 177 surviving headstones.

 

Before discussing the burial ground itself, the small, fenced inlet towards the back of the ground is worth investigating. Lurking beneath the Colosseum pub, hewn into the rock, sits a hermit’s cave. St John’s Hermitage is a scheduled ancient monument and was first used in 1346 where hermit John Sparkes was ‘installed’ by Thomas Lord Berkeley. The hermit’s duty was to pray for the wealthiest Quakers, namely Berkeley and his family. Subsequent hermits took up residence in the tiny cave well into the 17thcentury. But why did Berkeley require constant prayer? According to the research of slwoods.co.uk, Thomas Lord Berkley, otherwise known as ‘Thomas the Rich’ was a feudal baron whose ancestral home was Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. S L Woods explains that, ‘In 1327 Thomas was made joint custodian of the deposed King Edward II of England, whom he received at Berkeley Castle where he died, believed to have been murdered by an agent of Isabella of France. Thomas de Berkeley was tried an accessory to the murder of Edward II by a jury of 12 knights in the 4th year of King Edward III of England, but was honourably acquitted.’

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With a firm iron gate fixed across the entrance, this cave remains remarkably well preserved and sits free from graffiti and outside damage, with only the influx of autumn’s dead leaves to contest with. The cave, however, does not sit empty. In place of a hermit, rests a large pile of simplistic headstones, stacked to the ceiling. While these are not addressed in any accessible signage (a laminated info sheet is somewhat weather damaged), the former headstones of the ground’s inhabitants were simply stacked away, and have rested atop one another since the 1950s.

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Quaker headstones differ greatly from more common Anglican, catholic or atheist stones from the same time period; these carry simple initials, and nothing more. But why? To understand burial and ritual, one must first, understand the community.

 

Quakers refer to themselves as ‘The Religious Society of Friends’, or simply ‘Friends’ for short. The Quaker movement is a subdivision of Christianity who formed after splitting away from the Church of England.

 

[While they are commonly known today for their peaceful ways and conscientious objection during wartime, they were not always pinnacles of moral values, much like anyone else.

David Emeney, writing for ‘Discover Bristol’ explains that ‘In the late-17th and early-18th centuries, Bristol Quakers such as Charles and John Scandrett were slave ship owners. Famous Quakers who benefited from the produce of slave labour included Frys (cocoa) and Lloyds and Barclays (banking/insurance for ships), and the Galtons (guns). Other families, less known today but leading Bristol merchants of the period, including the Champions, the Goldneys and the Harfords, whose brass and iron goods were traded to West Africa for slaves.]

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Quaker cemeteries are commonly referred to as ‘burial grounds’, rather than the former, which was not widely used as a term by Quakers until the 19thcentury. Earlham College professor Thomas Hammdescribes Quaker burial practises and memorials as ‘unusual’ and ‘an illustration of how Friends try to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world.’[1]

In death, as in life, they believe in equality of status. Subsequently, Quakers believe it improper and unpleasant to elevate and celebrate certain people above others through elaborate headstones. Initially, all tombstones and grave markers were banned by the Quaker movements, believing that any lasting memorial would commemorate one above others, however plain or small in size. During the formation of the Quaker movement in 17thcentury England, churchyards were filling with increasingly elaborate memorials, so the decision to forego them altogether was revolutionary in a sense. Quakers saw these towering monuments as an indulgence in extreme vanity, with the middle and upper classes exercising ‘dominion in death’.

Most early Quaker burial grounds consisted of simple grassy areas, appearing to be little other than a tended garden or yard. Graves were unmarked and there were few outward signs that any burials had taken place at all.

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However, over time, many Quakers believed this to be similarly unacceptable, but did not want to indulge themselves in the elaborate masonry of the day. Many Quakers came to an agreement that a small, simple stone would be appropriate, marking the burial plot of the individual, but nothing else. During the 19thcentury, when many headstones reached their architectural and artistic peaks, Quaker groups came to a consensus that marking most graves would indeed be appropriate after all. It was then deemed appropriate that the name, date of death and age should be recorded on the stone. Stones would be free from any decoration and would be held to strict height and width parameters. From what is viewable through the metal bars in Bristol’s burial ground, many of the more ‘wordy’ headstones are so weathered that cataloguing internments without original documents to refer to would be a hellish task. However, the earlier, smaller stones, featuring initials alone, remain crisp and clear. Despite the Quakers being a relatively small group, the stacked headstones span from 1667-1923 and commemorate lives lasting from a mere eight months to 99 years.

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While the last burial took place in 1923, the ground was maintained by the faith until the 1950s when Bristol City Council’s road-widening scheme took precedence. Unusually though, the land was not obtained by the council through some compulsory purchase scheme. Rather, the Quakers in charge of the plot chose to donate their land for the greater good of the city’s transportation links. However, considering the burial ground, alongside a listed building or two, were sacrificed for the road, it remains a contentious topic today.

It should be noted that the burials disinterred during the road-widening, were re-interred at Avon View Cemetery.

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Initially, the council aimed to maintain the remainder of the burial ground, opening it as a small community green space. Shortly afterwards, in the 1960s, the burial ground was further repurposed and replanted with fragrant plants and flowers to create a sensory garden for the blind. While this wonderful idea was maintained for a short while, it eventually fell into disrepair, with time, weather and vandalism all playing their part.

Today, the part is undertaking a sometime regeneration project, via the hard work of volunteers. And, while this work is slow and perpetual considering its city-centre position, it’s a small patch of 17thcentury Bristol and Quaker history, which is well worth preserving.

 

 

 

Links/References/Further Reading

http://discoveringbristol.org.uk/browse/slavery/historic-site-quakers-burial-ground/

http://quakerspeak.com/how-are-quaker-cemeteries-different/

https://www.slwoods.co.uk/?p=1545

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2609435/quaker-burial-ground

http://heritage.quaker.org.uk/files/Central%20Bristol%20LM.pdf

 

All photographs taken by myself.

 

 

[1]http://quakerspeak.com/how-are-quaker-cemeteries-different/

Sheffield General Cemetery: The Good, The Bad and the Granite

On the outskirts of Sheffield City Centre, beyond the eternal banks of scaffolding, beside the motorways and specialist supermarkets, lies Sheffield General Cemetery.

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Sheffield General Cemetery, 1830s

 

Opened in 1836, it was the principal burial ground for Victorian Sheffield and, upon closing for burials in the 1970s, contains around 86,000 internments. Much of the original burial ground has since been cleared of headstones and is an open, green space, filled with dog-walkers, families and the occasional early-morning drinker. The cemetery and park land has since been classified as a nature reserve, conservation area, and ‘area of natural history interest’.

 

Sheffield General is one of the earliest working cemeteries in the UK, opening before the Cemeteries Clauses Act of 1847, and well before many of the more famous grounds such as Highgate and Brompton. It was also one of the first privately-run, landscaped cemeteries to open outside London.

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Like most city cemeteries, it was built as a response to overcrowded burial grounds; considering Sheffield’s population boom from an estimated 60,000 in 1801 to 130,000 in 1841. Following a huge cholera outbreak in 1832, many of its victims were buried in mass graves and a solution had to be sought.

In its relatively small grounds, it boasts ten listed buildings and monuments ‘including Grade II listed catacombs, an Anglican chapel, with the gatehouse, non-conformist chapel and the Egyptian Gateway, each listed at Grade II.’ It also holds the largest single grave plot in the country, holding the bodies of 96 poor residents.

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Ongoing conservational works have done wonders for the cemetery in recent years, resulting in the non-conformist chapel becoming a very popular music and arts venue. Built in the classical-revival style, it boasts Egyptian influences and a beautifully carved dove above the doorway. I was fortunate enough to see the chapel in its state of disrepair several years ago, and the transformation from desolation to functional beauty is phenomenal.

Hopefully, in time, the much-neglected Anglican chapel will follow suit, as so many of the monuments and burials within the cemetery are beautiful examples of early Victorian architecture. Much of the maintenance and conservation work has been undertaken by a team of dedicated volunteers, who are invaluable in preserving the future of historic cemeteries and heritage sites. They state on their website that, the cemetery was previously a ‘pretty grim place where none but the brave would enter.’ So thanks be to the volunteers, as my journey into Sheffield’s land of the dead was really rather pleasant!

The first recorded burial is that of Mary Ann Fish, who died of tuberculosis. She now lies in good company, with a host of interesting lives nestled between the plots.

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The cemetery is host to the impressive memorials of several high-profile Victorian businessmen, including George Bassett, the sweet manufacturer, steel manufacturers, missionaries and innumerable bizarre professions, lost to history. (Samuel Dalton, Ivory Merchant springs to mind!)

 

William Parker’s family memorial is one of the more prominent Grade II listed monuments, towering above its counterparts. Parker’s memorial is a large square tomb, topped with a circle of classical columns and god-fearing message. Parker himself was a cutlery merchant, and a popular one at that, with the great and good of Sheffield’s cutlery world taking part in his funeral procession. The website ‘flickeringlamps.com’ recounts the unfortunate tale of Parker’s wife, Katherine.

 

‘William Parker died intestate, meaning that he had no will…Although according to the laws of the time, Parker’s wife was not able to legally own property, it fell upon Katherine to manage her late husband’s affairs and oversee the winding up of his business.  As well as this, Katherine was left to bring up the couple’s five children alone.  Poor Katherine died by suicide in 1844, and the inquest into her death noted that she had had ‘immense anxieties and much to manage.’’

Another striking memorial is that of James Nicholson (industrialist), which features a large statue of a kneeling female figure and table. For a cemetery that sat in disrepair for so many years, many of the more unusual memorials such as these are remarkably intact.

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The Anglican chapel is arguably the last, and largest conservation point within the cemetery. Built in 1850 in the neo-gothic style, it has beautiful ogival windows and an impressively large spire. Interestingly, the spire was purposefully made larger than necessary so that it could be seen from far away.

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The gatehouse, built in a classical style with Egyptian features, has also been sympathetically conserved. It sits over the Porter Brook river giving the entrance of the cemetery a ‘crossing the river Styx’ feel…

 

While the mention of ‘catacombs’ may get many cemetery-lovers hot under the collar, those built into the hillside of the general cemetery were less than popular, with only ten burials recorded in the first ten years of its use.

Alongside merchants, industrialists and prominent names, there are the countless headstones of others; families and individuals whose histories are a mystery to us – yet, so many have beautiful, intricate symbolism carved into their stones, the likes of which are hard to find in most of the UK’s largest cemeteries. Alongside urns, hands and flowers, there are some beautiful examples of intricately carved weeping women, trees and angels. Considering many of these symbols were reserved for larger structures or for jewellery, they stand as proof that each burial ground holds untold secrets and hidden art.

When the cemetery closed to new burials in 1979, the cemetery’s future was in danger. With several large plots sold off to developers, exhuming thousands of bodies was an off-putting task and much of the site fell into disrepair and disuse.

After several hundred headstones were removed to create a green space beside the more ‘landscaped’ part of the cemetery, many more were set into the cemetery’s terrace, fixed in place with a thick concrete.

While this seems an unusual way to repurpose headstones, it offers Sheffield General an entrance way unlike any other I’ve visited. And while Sheffield General may not be cited as one of the greats, it is a wonderful example of a cemetery changing through the years, decaying, growing and rising back.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/religious-sites/30024-sheffield-cemetery-september-2014-a.html#.XNnFty3MyCU

https://flickeringlamps.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheffield_General_Cemetery

Hidden Pre-Raphaelites and Tiny Women at Birmingham Cathedral

In the centre of Birmingham, flanked by pubs and fashionable wine bars, stands a dinky cathedral and a handful of sporadically placed headstones. The grounds are busy, with commuters, teenagers and a large homeless population using its paths as a thoroughfare and its flat-topped tombs as tables. There are bus stops at each corner, benches filled with tired shoppers, and in 2017, hundreds of Brummies gathered to sing a rendition of Toto’s ‘Africa’ and raise money for charity. The space, St Philips Square, is ingrained in day-to-day Birmingham life. The building and headstones, however, seem to be an afterthought.

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The cathedral church of St Phillip was built between 1710-1725 and, despite its tiny stature, is the seat of the Bishop of Birmingham. As the population of Birmingham was booming in the 18thcentury, churches were running out of space to hold parishioners and, after a donation of land to Robert Philips in 1710, planning and building began in earnest.

While Birmingham is one of the UKs largest cities today, it didn’t achieve city status until 1889. Six years later, in 1905, St Philips became Birmingham cathedral, with its first bishop, Charles Gore, now standing front and centre in statue form, outside the doors.

Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Birmingham-born artist, features heavily in the cathedral’s interior. While he is mostly known through his association with the latter part of the pre-Raphaelite movement and his intricate, beautiful paintings, he was also a renowned glass designer. Burne-Jones donated several large glass windows to the cathedral, designed by himself and produced by Morris &Co, which continue to be a draw to tourists, worshippers and art-lovers alike.

“The Ascension was installed in 1885 and the Nativity and the Crucifixion two years later. Burne-Jones records “it was in the year 1885 that visiting my native city Birmingham I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philips’s church [that] I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side. He was paid £200 for each of his designs. They are considered characteristic of Burne-Jones’ later style – elongated bodies with small heads in relation to body length and designs which divide in two equal halves, horizontally. This technique separates heaven from earth in each of the windows. The Last Judgement was installed as a memorial window to Bishop Bowlby in 1897.”

– birminghamcathedral.com

 

To cover all architectural points of interest would be a very tiresome task, and I believe some of the most exciting points of interest to be outside the church walls.

But of course, beneath the tasteful baroque architecture and floral displays, lies a mire of other bizarre and exciting stories.

The churchyard surrounding St Philips holds around 60,000 burials, most of which (as with most city cemeteries) were unmarked. Those who could afford headstones have, over time, experienced a similar fate, as only around 100 remain intact today.

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The churchyard was closed to burials in 1858 as it quickly became a danger to public health with the sheer amount of bodies crammed in to such a small area. An 1849 report cites that “the effluvia from the yards and graves is said to be very offensive to the surrounding neighbourhood, especially in the summer months.”

These overcrowded graveyards were not only a public health risk, but were impossible to maintain and burials were poorly recorded. As so many internments were made, the graveyard became a jumble of headstones, with burials frequently disturbed by the boring rods that were inserted to find space below the ground for yet more bodies.

After the creation of Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries in 1835 and 1848 respectively, some of the pressure was taken off St Philips and its rising ground level.

Aside from traditional headstones and monuments, the churchyard plays host to several family burial vaults, many of which were backfilled and paved over during regeneration projects in the late 1990s. In the 1999 archaeological report, it is recorded that the burial vault of the Baldwin Family (among many, many others) was accidentally discovered following heavy plant work overhead. Works caused a partial collapse in a brick archway, leaving a 0.3 metre square hole in the path. The report continues ‘it was possible to view the interior of the vault from the hole and initial inspection showed the vault to be in good condition and containing several lead coffins.’

The Vault of the Harrison Family was similarly disturbed to ensure the stability of newly installed metal pillars and gates. The remains within this particular vault were intensely researched and studied, to such an extent that biographies and past health conditions are published online. (Samuel Harrison owned and operated the Exhibition Gin Palace in the 1860s, for example.)

While most of the Baldwin and Harrison coffins were identifiable, due to waterlogged conditions and the displacement of name plates, only four Baldwins could be recorded accurately. Similarly, most other burials unearthed during building and conservation work, were unidentifiable and merely recorded as ‘adult inhumation’, ‘disarticulated remains’ or by the integrity of the soft tissue within the less waterlogged sites.

Occasionally, new monuments are added to commemorate significant deaths, such as that to commemorate the 21 victims of the 1974 pub bombings. Also, large monuments are occasionally (unofficially) repurposed as a platform for contemporary displays of grief and loss. The large, squat, cut column beside Temple Row is a popular and prominent choice. The original monument commemorates the deaths of John Heap and William Badger who were killed during the construction of Birmingham Town Hall. On a recent visit, a large display of floral arrangements, cards and laminated newspaper reports were visible beside it, commemorating a young man’s tragic death which had recently come to court. While the churchyard may not be a contemporary burial site per-se, its purpose and visibility as a high-traffic public site is evident through displays and commemorations of deaths such as these.

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The remaining 18thand 19thcentury headstones display a wide range of professions and stories of Birmingham’s past. However, my personal favourite is easily overlooked. Standing alone, a tiny, lichen-covered headstone commemorates the life of ‘Nannetta Stoker.’ While the carving is faint, the following inscription can be deciphered:

 

“In Memory of

Nanetta Stocker

who departed this Life

May 4th1810

Aged 39 Years

The smallest Woman ever in

this Kingdom pofsefsed

with every accomplifhment

only 33 Inches high

a native of Austria.”

 

Nanette (incorrectly recorded as ‘Nanetta’ on her stone) is a forgotten music hall star who died with a huge following. Nanette was a musician, a dancer and a truly fascinating woman. Born in Austria in 1797, her physicality meant that she was forced (or ‘encouraged’, depending on the source) into show business at a young age. As I’m sure we are all aware, the only way for many people such as Nanette to make a living wage in their society was to exhibit themselves. After teaming up with German-born John Hauptman (who stood at 3ft 6inches high), the two extensively toured together, Nanette playing the pianoforte, John, the violin. They would also waltz together, which proved incredibly popular to 19thcentury audiences. In Birmingham alone, Nanette was the headline act at the annual Onion Fair carnival in Aston; a huge event, at which she triumphed.

Nanette is said to have enjoyed sewing and needlework and was ‘engaging and personable’. She was also of remarkably strong character. Her touring partner, Hauptman, proposed to Stocker, but was rejected ‘for reasons known only to herself.’

 

Nanette is but one of thousands of stories held within the cathedral’s grounds, and while most are lost to time, I do recommend taking a trip, should you ever find yourself in the area.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources/Further Reading:

 

https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-502-1/dissemination/pdf/birmingh2-48957_1.pdf

 

https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/your-pictures-birmingham-cathedral-in-the-nineteenth-183479

 

https://ahistoryofbirminghamchurches.jimdo.com/birmingham-st-martin-in-the-bull-ring/st-philip-s-birmingham-cathedral/

 

https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/amazing-story-woman-buried-forgotten-14184354

 

http://lesleyannemcleod.blogspot.com/2013/08/nannette-stocker-and-windsor-fairy.html

 

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ym5x3mq2p7EC&pg=PA22&lpg=PA22&dq=nanette+stocker&source=bl&ots=8-axoYiWP5&sig=ACfU3U0Icec60PRjBVv7PY2afM_WnkTS-w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjy48P2hfbhAhUDQhUIHXJ-CHg4ChDoATAAegQICRAB#v=onepage&q=nanette%20stocker&f=false

 

 

 

All photographs my own unless otherwise stated.

Buried Alive! A short history of premature burial and safety coffins

Taphophobia. The fear of being buried alive. The subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality, however, for many centuries, it was a very real threat.

There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with apocryphal accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the 18thand 19thcenturies.

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In 1896, social reformer and bearded anti-vaxxer (those have existed for centuries too) William Tebb, co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with fellow germ-denier Walter Hadwen. The association campaigned for burial reforms to ensure the dead were truly, irrevocably dead. Due to the catatonic side effects of diseases such as cholera and malaria, newspapers were filled with accounts of prematurely buried individuals, subsequently dying in unimaginably traumatic ways.

‘WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –

The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-month-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time.’

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Front Page of Tebb’s ‘Premature Burial’

Together with Edward Perry Vollum, who was nearly buried alive himself, the two men published a book titled ‘Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented’. The work consisted of suggestions of safety measures and several accounts of individuals later being discovered to have been buried alive. The association distributed this work alongside others of a similarity, such as ‘A Plan for Forming Associations for the Prevention of the Burial of Persons Alive, by an Army surgeon, and The Absolute Signs of Death, and the Prevention of Premature Burial, by the eminent British physician, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F.R.S.’[1]

However, ‘Premature Burial’ is the most gripping of all the Association’s efforts. It remains in print to this day and is as frightening to the contemporary reader as it would have been to the Victorian taphophobe. The Paris Review recorded the lasting horror in these accounts of suffering. ‘There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with dishevelled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”[2]

If anything, the work concerns itself with exhumation as much as it does interment, suggested than many Victorian cemeteries were hives of questionable activity throughout their working day!

Considering that death and burial weren’t widely regulated industries, many accounts of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis of death by a non-medical individual. Subsequently, the association repeatedly campaigned for parliament to put new regulations in place, requiring a medical professional to confirm death before the body was handled by an undertaker. Previously, death certificates had been widely issued by doctors who had not examined the body, which seems utterly ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. After years of efforts, Tebb was still frequently dismissed by the wider medical community and remained a staunch campaigner for burial reform until his death in 1917. In Tebb’s will, he explicitly stated that his body could only be disposed of following ‘unmistakable evidence of decomposition’. He was cremated a week after his death.

 

Tebb’s death aside, premature burial required very real preventative inventions. In the 19thcentury, this commonly took the form of elaborate coffin mechanisms. The second version of ‘Premature Burial…’ included a handful of elaborate coffin mechanisms to assist the nearly-dead. The first, by Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnick, was presented in 1897 following his supposed experience of witnessing a Belgian girl be buried alive. Tebb and Vollum describe the invention as follows –

“…it consists of a long tube, about three and a half inches’ diameter, and a hermetically-sealed box.  The tube is fixed into an aperture in the coffin as soon as the latter is lowered into the grave.  No gases can escape from the tomb into the outer air, as the metallic box into which the upper end of the tube enters cannot be opened from the outside.

On the chest of the supposed dead body is placed a glass ball, several inches in diameter, attached to a spring which communicates through the tube with an iron box above ground.

On the slightest movement of the chest’s wall, as in the act of marked breathing, or movement of the body, the glass ball releases a spring which causes the lid of the iron box to fly open immediately, thus admitting both air and light to the coffin.  At the same time a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour.  In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below.  The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”[3]

In short, Karnice-Karnicks invention is an elaborate jack-in-a-box system. However bizarre the mechanisms sound, the coffin system was tested and proven to be a great success when tested on the living. Yet while the dead do not breathe, they decompose. While the glass ball was supposed to be activated by breathing, it was equally as efficient at detecting the bloating and rotting of the dead. To avoid a run of unnecessary exhumations and cemetery flag-flying, the invention was not a success.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

Before complicated coffin systems, earlier methods of prevention consisted of a simple cord attached to a bell, or similar method used to attract outside attention. Flags, ladders and minor explosions were all popularised, but most had foregone the inclusion of a breathing tube, making them all rather redundant.

In the 1820s, so-called ‘portable death chambers’ were popularised in Germany. These chambers were constructed over open graves and were furnished with a bell and viewing window. If the bell was rung, the body could be immediately exhumed, meanwhile ‘watchmen’ could peer into the chamber to search for signs of decomposition.

In 1829, fellow German Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a system of strings and bells attached to the body’s extremities. Yet, as with Karnice-Karnick’s later invention, natural decomposition and shifting of the body could frequently cause false positive results, rendering the bells, once again, inconsequential.

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Several other inventions, including one in 1995 that required an intercom system, were patented, but ultimately proved pointless. There appear to be no official records of anyone being saved from a safety coffin and the western popularisation of embalming rendered any chance of post- ‘death’ survival ultimately impossible.

However, the fear remains. Despite modern medicine and developments in burial reform, the terror of waking up in a coffin is perpetually repeated in popular culture. Most recently, the horror film ‘The Nun’ featured coffin bells as a questionable plot point, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself had to fight her way out of a coffin in the 2000s. As long as we fear the grave, our dead will never truly stay buried.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/02/item-of-the-month-february-2012-premature-burial/

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/02/the-grave-with-window.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_coffin

Footnotes:

[1]http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

[2]https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

[3]Premature Burial, 1905, pp321-322)

 

In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

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19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?

 

Hidden Treasures of Arnos Vale – A Visitor’s Perspective

[NOTE: This post first appeared on arnosvale.org.uk as a guest article]

 

It is no secret that I love Arnos Vale. Since moving to Bristol, I have spent many days traipsing its winding paths, admiring the headstones and, of course, drinking its coffee. My social media is filled with images of mossy headstones and stone angels, and there are few events in the Spielman Centre that haven’t piqued my interest.

But, despite my frequent visits, each time I walk through the lanes, I am met with a new symbol, a new flower or a new artefact I had yet to notice. Arnos may well be a historical site, but it changes so drastically with the seasons, it would be foolish to think you knew the cemetery at all.

Arnos Vale is simultaneously a working cemetery, a heritage site, a habitat and a veritable art gallery of historical remembrance. To write a thorough guide to all that Arnos offers would probably take until my own death. So, before I dash to choose my own headstone, please enjoy a rather abridged guide to the hidden treasures of Bristol’s finest cemetery.

Many of us take shortcuts through cemeteries on our way to work or as a cut-through to the shops, which makes it so easy to skim over the sheer variety and beauty of headstones.

While Arnos has been accepting burials since its creation in 1837, many of its older interments are easy to spot, thanks to the elaborate memorial choices of the Victorian Era.

 

The Victorian interest in symbols and speaking without words particularly took root in the world of grave and monument ornamentation. Alongside names and dates, 19thcentury headstones are often topped by a carving – hands, flowers, birds etc., each possessing a hidden message of their own. There are hundreds to list, but a few popular symbols are –

  • Hands – These are one of the most varied carvings out there, each gesture symbolising something different about the deceased. A few variations are:
    • Shaking Hands represent a farewell to earthly life. Often these have distinguishable male and female (lacy/frilly) cuffs which may denote a spouse left behind.
    • Pointing upwards infers that the deceased has ascended to heaven.
    • Pointing down DOESN’T mean the opposite! This often represents a sudden death, the hand being that of God.
  • Ivy and/or Grapes – As ivy is evergreen and can continue to thrive on dead trees, it is a plant that has come to represent the immortal soul. Also, it was often used as a Victorian shorthand for friendship and remembrance.
  • Lilies – Much like hands, lilies have a plethora of meanings.
    • Lilies in general represent death and mourning.
    • Lily of the Valley, however, represents a return of happiness.
    • The Victorians loved using flowers as a means of expressing their emotions, (both positive and negative!) so lilies outside of the cemetery context can be tricky to decipher.
  • Butterflies – These delicate carvings, often accompanying a cut flower, represent resurrection. These are often found on memorials to the young and are particularly poignant.

 

It is such a thrill to walk through a cemetery or churchyard and feel as though you are privy to some secret insight into the past. I absolutely urge any visitors, especially those with families in tow, to take time to search for these symbols and decipher them along the way. Spotting pictures and imagining the stories behind the woodland burials is a healthy and creative way to engage with your surroundings and feel less detached from centuries of fascinating lives that are waiting to be rediscovered and reimagined.

Arnos has thousands of these symbols, intricately carved into headstones and tombs – however, larger Victorian monuments hold similar hidden meanings and are rather easier to spot from the paths!

There are some beautiful column memorials within Arnos Vale, a particularly clear example being visible just opposite the cloisters. This column, standing over 6 feet in height, looks as though a mason has cruelly chiselled it in two. However, a broken column represents a life cut short. Other columns closer to the Anglican Chapel feature broken columns with wreaths, which show victory over death.

Obelisks, huge tombs and angels often afforded the grieving family more space to memorialise the deceased and often feature whole paragraphs of achievements and addresses. These are often thought-provoking and, should you be inclined, easy to research further. As such huge monuments were incredibly costly in their day, the financial, political or historical status of the deceased means you are a mere click or two away from a wealth of information.

Should you not be feeling especially ‘outdoorsy’, Arnos’ buildings are filled with fascinating artefacts and exhibitions. The museum opposite the West Lodge is always worth a visit and the Anglican chapel is a beautifully serene structure that shines out as a love letter to conservation done right! However, it is in the depths of the Spielman Centre (accessible via the stairs in the Atrium) that a true hidden treasure is kept.

Arnos-Vale-Woodland-Burial-Hidden-Treasures

In a large glass-topped case lies Arnos Vale’s own ‘Immortelle’, a curious painted plaster wreath of flowers which was uncovered during conservation efforts in recent years. ‘Immortelles’, from the French word for ‘everlasting’, were popular grave decorations from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down. For a piece that spent around a century under a protective blanket of soil and moss, Arnos’ example is a stunning treat for the eyes.

Keeping our thoughts on subterranean treats, it would be foolish not to spend a little time on Arnos Vale’s famous nocturnal inhabitants, bats!

Bat walks throughout the year are fantastic experiences for all ages – they help nurture a love for nature and conservation, but also dispel any silly myths about one of Britain’s most endangered and beautiful native species.

To end on a lighter note, it is no surprise that Arnos Vale is incredibly popular as a unique wedding venue and forest school. Its peaceful woodland setting, wildflowers, birds and nocturnal creatures offer an idyllic moment of quiet clarity from the city’s roar.

Arnos has a wonderful variety of British trees, from high, swaying poplars to mighty pines, many housing tawny owls, buzzards and song birds whose calls carry across the cemeteries’ 45 acres!

While operating as a habitat for larger animals such as badgers, there are several examples of micro habitats within its grounds – a simple wall leading from the war graves by Soldiers’ Corner may at first seem little more than a structural or architectural feature. However, the bricks and foliage offer an ideal habitat for smaller animals, such as reptiles like slow worms and common lizards.

To walk the Victorian cobbled path (just down from the top lodge) while holding a handrail, crafted from Arnos’ own Ash saplings shows a considered approach to conservation that many heritage sites can only hope to mimic.

I won’t spoil any more of Arnos’ secrets for you, but be sure to find some of your own during your next visit. And if you spy me lurking between the graves, hunting for a butterfly or carved hand, don’t worry, you’ll be doing the same before you know it!

Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

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Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

_______________

 

[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)

Introducing Immortelles

When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.

Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.

While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.

The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.

Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.

‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down.

Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather.  Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’

The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.

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While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.

Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?

 

 

https://kaionegal.typepad.com/the_art_of_nothing/2012/08/french-generals-chateau-getaway-day-1st-antonins-cemetery.html

 

https://arnosvale.org.uk/life-death-and-the-rest-logo/

 

https://marketlavingtonmuseum.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/an-immortelle/

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/545865954/memento-mori-grave-funeral-victorian

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/658389548/rare-victorian-cemetary-grave-immortelle?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-1

 

https://time4us2retire.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/our-treasures-immortelle/

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

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Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

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Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls