Gravedigging 101

Cemeteries, Death, Graves, taphophile

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This week on ‘Burials and Beyond’, how to dispose of a body.

As much as I’d delight in upholding such a click-bait-y introduction, clarification is – sadly – imminent. Unless you’re inclined to murder and subsequent concealment, any deceased individual will pass through a chain of death professionals before they meet their final resting place. In this journey from death to internment and decay, we can be inclined to consider only hospital staff and funeral directors as sole ‘handlers’. However, they are integral pieces in the wider death jigsaw puzzle. I’d like to give a quick overview of a much-overlooked piece in the death and burial chain, that of the gravedigger.

As a Brit, I live in a country of ever-increasing cremation. In 1960, cremation to burial rates were 34.70%, whereas in 2015, they had risen dramatically to 75.44%.  Understandably, there are cultural and religious concerns to take into account in any burial practise, but overall, cremation is firmly the preferred method of ‘burial’ for citizens of the United Kingdom.

For those of us who choose to have our deceased buried, whether for reasons of religion or tradition, our thoughts often only extend as far as the funeral director, and not beyond. Subsequently, many consider the journey of our dead less and less. We buy a package, perhaps view the body, attend the service and return home. However, should you choose to have your deceased buried, gravediggers are an integral piece of the journey we frequently overlook. To help with my post, Dan, a very patient former gravedigger, agreed to answer my barrage of questions.

We know gravediggers exist, but our mental images of the profession are often warped by Victorian grotesques, or folk-take depictions of hunched sextons, busying themselves in remote churchyards. As delightfully gothic as these images may be, they are far from the contemporary truth. Should you live in a city, you can be sure there is a team of full-time, fully trained gravediggers waiting to bury your dead.

Digging a grave is far more complex than ‘dig a hole, chuck Nanna in, fill it up, pub, golden.’ Funeral Directors are frequently seen as the main ‘body burier’, but in reality, they are far more of a middle-man, providing guidance and comfort. So, how does a gravedigger go about burying your corpse?

Firstly, there will be an allocated plot within the cemetery – this may be a pre-purchased plot in prime position (with a prime price tag), or a regular plot assigned by the cemetery. Once the gravedigger has seen the plot, they’ll be able to estimate the time needed to dig the hole. Typically, there is nothing simple or constant about digging a hole. The gravedigger will know the ground; soft clay will take less time than very rocky earth etc. Believe it or not, some graves may take half a day to dig by hand, whereas another plot 200 metres away may take three day’s solid work with a mechanical digger and hydraulic hammer.

So, with the plot known, you…still can’t begin digging. Before shovel meets earth, the gravedigger needs to know the exact size and shape of the coffin (coffins taking precedence over caskets in the UK) as such a wide variety of styles require a wide variety of holes. If the details passed on from the funeral director are incorrect or dramatically change, the gravedigger has no choice but to quickly take a shovel to the graveside and re-size the hole in front of the grieving funeral party themselves. As a very tolerant gravedigger recounted ‘a beetroot complexion and trying not to fall into a grave while trying to jam in a coffin is not a good look.’

Having painfully foregone all temptations to make poor jokes as to the importance of size, now we must consider the equal importance of depth. If a grave is for one person, the gravedigger will typically dig to a depth of 4 ft. Most commonly, graves are dug for two internments, which will be around 6 to 6.5 ft deep. As my patient gravedigger recalls ‘there is nothing more annoying than digging out a rock hard grave for two people, only to be told on the day it was only for one.’

Similarly, multiple internments or family plots have their perils ‘If you get a grave for four people, you’ve got to get your miners hat on and take the caged canary with you! Being twelve foot down in a narrow grave is really very scary, and a ladder is a must!’ 

In terms of practicality, before the coffin enters the ground the amount of earth leaving and returning to the hole must be considered – if none was removed from the pile of earth, there will be a large mound left once the grave is filled in. If too much is taken, you’ve got a trough-shaped problem on your hands.

While digging, all graves are supported by wooden boards to try to prevent the earth falling in on the gravedigger themselves, but sometimes a collapse is imminent (see picture). Normally, such a collapse is little more than an irritant as the gravedigger may be free from harm, but the entire collapse must be re-structured and made safe before digging can continue.

Another perpetual pain is that of water intrusion. If a grave reaches a natural spring and fills with water, or if there is a particularly heavy downpour, the grave can fill with water… fast. So, how to solve such a problem with the funeral party gnashing at your heels.

Gravedigger Dan says ‘…you keep a pump running right up until the hearse pulls up, chuck a bag of dry leaves or straw down in the grave and whisper in the director’s ear “hurry the fuck up!”…’.

He continues, ‘I have been standing there and watched a coffin seem to be rising from the grave. Again, you can’t help but turn beetroot-faced when people are looking at you in horror…’

Similarly, gravediggers are no strangers to workplace mishaps. The webs (the straps used to lower a coffin) may snap, should they be in poor condition (a rare, but embarrassing hazard), and the coffin may tumble into the hole before the funeral party. Should the webs snap from a great height, there’s a good chance the lid will pop off too, unveiling Nanna’s wizened face to the world. Further to this, it is a rare, but not unseen site to see one of the funeral party fall in to the grave and break a bone or two of their own.

Depending on cultural and personal demonstrations of grief, wilful flinging of oneself into the grave is slightly more common than such an unintended tumble.

Through talking to Dan, he particularly emphasised that the greatest hindrance in the smooth burial of the deceased was the carelessness of other visitors to the cemetery. He has seen impatient people beeping their car horns at hearses as they both slowly enter the cemetery gates and others loudly cleaning and tending graves beside an ongoing service. He has seen cars driven into headstones and has had a careers-worth of abuse thrown his way from grieving families.

So, the coffin is in, the funeral party has gone, time to bury the dead. This is done by hand and is usually straight forwards… providing no rubble is being used, which may smash through the coffin when thrown in. Then back-filling picks up at double-speed to hide the exposed deceased!

Once the grave is filled in, with a little mound on top to accommodate the earth sinking (when everything settles, this should give the grave a level ground), the gravediggers then arrange the flowers that had been put to one side, remove any sign of their presence and leave at last.

Finally, cultural differences. Most cemeteries will be aware of different burial and funeral traditions and will subsequently accommodate or have measures in place for such rituals. Some cultures like to back-fill the grave themselves (which is a nice little break for the gravediggers!), others enjoy a graveside picnic and others may require water beside the grave so they can wash their own feet and the deceased themselves.

Gravediggers may be a rather ‘unseen’ profession, but their importance cannot be over-stated. It also cannot be over-stated how much crap they must withstand from us, the grieving public, So, next time you’re in need of their services, why not tip them? Or simply say a few words of thanks. Chances are, we’ll all need their services eventually!

 

 

Further Reading:

http://www.cremation.org.uk/constitution-and-annual-reports

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warstone Lane – Birmingham’s Hidden Catacombs

Catacombs, Cemeteries, Death, Graves, taphophile

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When searching for cemeteries and memorials, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Birmingham city centre’ aren’t the most obvious bedfellows. Take the time to stroll into the jewellery quarter and you’ll find a little death-y treat, slap bang in the middle of all your diamond shopping needs.

Indeed, alongside Lenny Henry, Industrialisation and Black Sabbath, Birmingham can boast of bearing catacombs. Small, but beautifully formed. Don’t get your hopes up by expecting some labyrinthine, beautifully preserved affair, complete with tour guides and postcards at the gift shop. Birmingham’s catacombs are small, blocked up, shielded from view and not for those of clumsy disposition. Or those of us with easily-triggered vertigo! Nonetheless, they’re well worth a visit if you find yourself in the black country.

Warstone Lane Cemetery (also known as Brookfields, C of E or Mint Cemetery) was established in 1848 by a private company to cope with the overcrowding of cemeteries that was commonplace throughout much of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was initially intended as a burial ground for Anglicans, but, as with most city burial grounds, this was not strictly enforced as time progressed. The last internments were made in 1982, meaning that little is done to the cemetery in terms of upkeep and preservation; that is not to say the place is going to rack and ruin, but it is evident how few graves are regularly visited by relatives. However, during our brief walk around the grounds, we saw a number of flat topped tombs used as informal dining tables for workers on their lunchbreak. It was nice to see engagement and an element of non-destructive activity within the cemetery ; the workers’ setups seemed rather ingenious and not at all disrespectful. Warstone Cemetery, clearly has changing usages and is ingrained into the fabric of the surrounding area.

A short internet search will furnish you with a list of notable burials, such as – Harry Gem (a 19th century sportsman with excellent sideburns), Clement Ingelby (Shakespearian Scholar – sideburn status, unknown) and John Postgate (Surgeon and food safety campaigner. Fluffy sideburns.)  In order to stay true to my ‘casual’ writing style, (and as my trip was unplanned), I sought out none of these. You’re welcome.

However, it takes little more than a short wander around the cemetery to find a number of interesting tombs, memorials and carvings that would keep the casual visitor interested for hours.

Personal favourites of mine included:-

 

 

  • The Tomb of William Hipkins, his wife Lavinia and sister Bertha. William himself was lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the stone reading ‘the sea shall give up its dead.’

Hipkins had been a successful engineer and the main initiator of the formation of the University of Birmingham’s Business School.

 

  • The traditional headstone of Mary Ann Broore (technically a lawn grave, but before such sections existed). While I know little of her life, her headstone contains a beautiful array of carved flowers, wheat, ferns and ivy.

 

  • The variety of veiled urns and headstones. There are a number of heavily veiled headstones (traditionally, a Victorian shorthand for displaying grief), predominantly on family plots containing heart-breaking numbers of young children. While deeply sad, they are towering, beautiful monuments to a very personal tragedy experienced by so many.

 

The upper section of the cemetery is filled with simplistic chest tombs, hence the propensity for passing workers to utilise their makeshift picnic spots. Several of the larger examples are family vaults, most with short histories recorded on the side.

In-between pockets of tombs and vaults, there are a number of beautifully sculpted urns, obelisks and a snaking line of ledgers above the catacomb recess, commemorating civilians who died during the war. There are broken columns galore and a lot of granite. So mind your step if its wet when you visit!

While headstones and tombs are the bread and butter of a taphophile’s day out, I found some of the most interesting features in Warstone Cemetery to be of relatively ‘natural’ formation. To reiterate; Warstone, although no longer a working cemetery, is not abandoned, but has suffered from neglect over the years. The first feature to capture my interest resembled rows and rows of uneven, fresh graves.

As I entered the cemetery, I was met with rows of tilted headstones, each looming over a deep trough of dead leaves. These brown recesses gave the contradictory appearance of being freshly dug, but, due to the weathered headstones, simultaneously old and abandoned. These jaunty rows appeared to be more noticeable in the upper, and subsequently older part of the cemetery. These graves that have not been backfilled since the initial coffin collapse (often hundreds of years prior) – leading to an interesting topography of deep ditches, particularly on the side of the cemetery closest to the station.

Naturally, the key attraction at Warstone Cemetery is its tiered catacombs. These were initially constructed as a means of absorbing the site’s existing sandpit into the environs. (Warstone and Key Hill Cemetery were built on hillsides that had been quarried for sand, later used in the metal casting process.)

While this added a few extra family vaults – creating a three-storey cemetery of sorts – it cannot be deemed to be a space-saving construction. However, is has been recorded that the unpleasant vapours exuding from said catacombs resulted in the instigation of the Birmingham Cemeteries Act, meaning that all coffins that were not directly interred should be sealed with pitch or lead.

Sadly, the catacombs themselves are no longer directly accessible to the public; you can stroll along the paths, read the inscriptions, but the tombs themselves are now fully sealed.  I am to understand they’d previously been open to the public, but have found no photographic or first hand evidence of this. Nonetheless, many of the entrances are now an attractive shade of concrete.

Upon approaching the catacombs, there is a circular plot, surrounding a central grouping of beech and pine trees. The burials within it are all pleasant enough, as are the ones flanking either side of the entrance and beside the ominously buttressed wall. There are easily accessible stairs to the side of the catacombs, so access is easy enough, HOWEVER, if you plan on visiting, there are no safety precautions once the stairs have been ascended. The structure is as it always was, which is utterly refreshing in today’s cemetery environments where headstones are regularly laid flat at the slightest sniff of a slant.  The catacombs are shown as they were intended to be; not to overstate it, but as a certain amphitheatre of death. Conversely, a stone surface, 9 feet up high, thick with moss, isn’t health and safety’s best friend. There is no railing on the top level, meaning that one wrong step close to the edge could result in your own internment if you’re not careful. So, enjoy the view, keep your eyes open and don’t be an idiot.

 

At the top of the catacombs sits the tomb of businessman John Baskervillle. While his name lends itself to the famous typeface, the story of his death, or rather the treatment of his corpse, is far more interesting. I’ll try to provide a short summary, however I urge you to follow the further reading links at the bottom of the post. When John Baskerville died in 1775, he was a very successful and wealthy man, but also a confirmed atheist. In his will, he provided strict instructions as to the treatment of his body. Baskerville was not only buried upright, but in an air-tight lead-lined coffin. Initially, these wishes were carried out and old Baskerville was interred in a small mausoleum in the grounds of his house Easy Hill, where he rested for many years. However, in 1821, workmen digging for gravel disinterred Baskerville’s coffin, where is subsequently laid unclaimed by relatives. As Baskerville was unwanted and an outspoken atheist, no cemetery would inter him and his decayed body created somewhat of a quandary. For several years, it rested in the warehouse of Thomas Gibson, the man whose business stood in the place of the old Baskerville House. Being an entrepreneurial sort, Gibson would occasionally open Baskerville’s coffin to curious visitors at the cost of 6d a peek. Oweing to Baskervilles method of burial, he was remarkably well preserved. A visitor, Thomas Underwood, sketched Baskerville’s body in August 1829 and recorded that –

his body was, after forty-six years underground, in a singular state of preservation. It was wrapped in a white linen shroud with a branch of laurel, faded but firm in texture. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An unpleasant smell strongly resembling decayed cheese arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin quickly.”

Visitors notwithstanding, being stored in a warehouse didn’t suit the fast-putrifying businessman and Baskerville soon changed hands. Plumber John Marston soon found himself the new guardian of Baskerville and was decidedly less conscientious about opening the coffin. Soon, visitors to his corpse (oh yes, there were still visitors) were overcome by the smell of putrefaction and Baskerville had to go. At this stage, Baskerville’s state was less than pretty, but still, no-one would bury his remains. After a series of underhand machinations on the part of Marston, Baskerville was buried in the catacombs beneath Christ Church. However, Baskerville was denied his rest once more when Christ Church was demolished in 1899 and he – along with 600 other internees – was finally laid to rest at Warstone. His one wish of rejecting burial on consecrated ground was not to be. Today his manhandled remains have the best view of the cemetery, which, although pleasant. No doubt would have provided no small comfort.

As I left Warstone via the gatehouse, I believed that no memorial could top the unexpected wonder of the catacombs. However, as I made my way towards the gates, I found myself drawn to a stunningly unique memorial to the Sutcliffe family – a literal family tree.

The monument is a perfect example of the late 19th century naturalism movement by taking the form of a tree stump. The stone trunk stands beautifully stark against the ‘standard’ headstones around it and is the most unusual ‘small’ memorial within the entirety of Warstone. The Sutcliffe tree lists the names of the deceased at irregular intervals, and at jaunty angles, as though they had been carved by young lovers. Sutcliffe’s work is not just a feat of cemetery masonry, but is a beautifully considered piece of sentimental art. Erected in 1888, it was designed and erected by LW Sutcliffe and seemed to  – initially – be conventional in its listing of deceased ‘kindred’.  However, the latest addition is the most emotionally charged, being a eulogy for his eldest son, Isherwood Edmonds Sutcliffe who had died as a result of wounds received in France in 1916.

While Warstone has its fair share of supposed hauntings (an obligatory ‘grey lady’ and a lost WW1 soldier), its appeal lies firmly in the stories left by the living and the remarkable ways by which nature shuffles its way through established structures.

 

 

Sites used in Research/Further Reading:

 

http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org/2012/10/19/haunted-heritage-warstone-lane-cemetery/

 

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-edward-hipkins.html

 

https://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/business-opinion/city-securing-sweet-melancholy-death-9810015

 

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2425682/memorial-search?page=1#sr-111232711

 

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001545

 

http://houndofhecate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/john-baskervilles-peripatetic-corpse.html

(Sketch image courtesy of the above)

 

Invoking the Owlman

Cryptozoology, Curiosities, Folk Tales, Superstition, Uncategorized

 

The 1970s birthed not only teletext and space invaders, but also everyone’s favourite regional owl-beast. While the rest of the world were indeed playing ‘that funky music’, visitors to the Cornish village of Mawnan were preoccupied with the sighting of a nightmarish hooter.

On the night of April 17th 1976, two young sisters on a camping holiday with their parents found themselves by the 13th century church of St Mawnan and St Stephen. To their terror, above the bell tower, appeared a huge owl “with pointed ears as big as a man”, glowing eyes and black, pincer-like claws. The girls were so shaken by this feathered vision that their father packed up their bags and abruptly put an end to their holiday.

Thus, the Owlman of Mawnan began his reign of terror. Ish.

The image of the Cornish Owlman gripped tabloids and eccentric occultists alike, with sporadic sightings of the beast continuing well into the early 80s. However, most, if not all, information pertaining to this gripping tale of regional terror came from one man; self-styled ‘wizard’ and ‘paranormal researcher’, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.

Shiels is an interesting and incredibly lucky (ahem) researcher. In the 1970s alone, Shiels claimed to have personal one-to-one chats with a plethora of magical creatures and was fortunate enough to catch Nessie on film on the second day of his visit. It appears Shiels was a man of many talents, operating as a professional entertainer, artist, poet, playwright and prolific writer. Again, in 1976, ‘The Shiels Effect’ was one of his plethora of publications; this one concerning how to hoax UFO and paranormal effects.  He also penned several works on conjuring and stage magic – alongside his more recent efforts of an autobiography, ‘Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale’, published in 2011. He’s a divisive character, with Magonia Magazine reporting that Shiels purchased his doctorate ‘in the USA for $5’

But Shiels was not simply a reporter within the Owlman legend. As with many other obscure and mystical monsters of the 70s, he was fortunate to come into contact with the beast itself. After his brush with the young campers, the Owlman revealed himself to Shiels, recounted stories and disappeared into the ether.

Shiels continued to document his Owlman experiences in a series of interviews and investigations following the initial bell tower sighting. The sisters – later identified as June and Vicky Melling – produced sketches, which were then re-interpreted by Shiel’s artistic hand. The originals, as with much evidence relating to cryptozoology, are nowhere to be found.  Later, Jonathan Downes, the Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (‘The world’s largest mystery animal research group’) furthered research into the Owlman, interviewing several eyewitnesses and increasing the documentation of reported sightings. His work ‘The Owlman and Others’ includes further ‘eyewitness’ descriptions of the Owlman, all similarly dramatic. A later duo of witnesses described the beast as ‘horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.’

Regardless of Downes research and his commitment to the Owlman brand, it is understandable how the majority of people – those who did not dismiss the sightings as fraudulent from day one – believe the Owlman to be simply…an owl.

The most common dismissal of ‘Owlman’ is that the huge bird in question was a Giant Eagle Owl. The solution of Barn owls has been thrown around for some time, but considering the average wingspan is around 80-95 cms with no recorded giant examples, they remain in the clear. However, Giant Eagle Owls are essentially flying toddlers, with an average wingspan of 138-170cms. The largest individuals weigh in at around 6 ½ pounds, making them one of the the heaviest owls in the world. While not in possession of glowing eyes, they are suitably scary animals with Birds Britannica stating that they combine the power of ‘a real eagle with the terrifying impact of an owl’s nocturnal strike.’

While not native to the UK, Eagle Owls have been kept as far back as the 1600s and all sightings and current breeding pairs are as a result of escaped pets. They remain popular within the UK, with Birds Britannica quipping that they are currently ‘as common on housing estates as rottweilers.’ On average, 60-70 eagle owls are lost annually with two-thirds not being recaptured.

Whether you believe events at Mawnan can be dismissed as a simple hoax and an owl-less night, the Eagle Owl theory remains popular with debunkers. Despite the proliferation of these ginormous owls into the populous, they remain decidedly owl-sized and are not currently threatening camping trips or family life.

To my knowledge, at least.

 

 

Further Reading:

Owls, Mike Toms. Collins New Naturalist. Harper Collins. 2014

Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey. Chatto & Windus, 2005

The Owlman and Others (30th Anniversary Expanded Edition), Jonathan Downes. Cfz. 2006.

http://magoniamagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/monstrous-tales.html

http://www.paranormal-encounters.com

The Tomb of Sir Christopher Wray at Glentworth

Churches, Death, Graves, Lincolnshire

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Like many counties, Lincolnshire celebrates an annual open churches festival, in which numerous small villages open their church doors to visitors with a cup of tea and a frightening array of cakes and jams.

One of the churches involved in celebrations was the unassuming-looking parish church of St Michael in the tiny village of Glentworth. Glentworth, a village and civil parish, boasted a population of only 323 in 2011.

 

Surrounded by immaculately maintained grounds, St Michaels, like most small parish churches, is a small, composite building, with multiple additions made over several centuries.  The oldest part of St Michael’s is the Anglo Saxon tower, with later additions made in the Elizabethan, Victorian and Georgian periods. The structure, being predominantly rebuilt in the Victorian and Georgian periods, is beautifully maintained and simplistic in design.

 

Aside from their annual scarecrow event, the sleepy village of Glentworth seems to be renowned for little else. Which, once you cross the threshold of St Michael’s, is a truly baffling fact.

 

The interior of the church is plainly decorated, with simple plastered walls, gothic windows and attractive Victorian red floor tiles. The stained-glass windows are understandably more elaborate, with the east wall featuring bright depictions of the crucifixion and last supper.

However, the window itself was built for another purpose; to cast more light upon the tombs beneath it. These tombs, are – without a doubt – the jewel in Glentworth’s crown.

 

To the left of the window stands the imposing tomb of Sir Christopher Wray and his family. Wray was Chief Justice during the reign of Elizabeth I, and a hardened, controversial Judge. A quick scan across any history book will reveal Wray’s name next to a whole manner of high profile trials including that of John Somerville and William Parry, who conspired to assassinate the queen. However, my personal favourite, with a decidedly grizzly ending is that of the pamphleteer John Stubbs who – after publishing disparaging materials about the English monarchy’s relationship with France – was condemned to have his right hand cut off by ‘means of a cleaver driven through the wrist by a mallet’. Although not especially relevant to Wray himself, I must repeat Stubbs’ morbidly wonderful final words before his hand was removed were ‘Pray for me not my calamity is at hand.

Most importantly, in historical terms, is that Wray, acting as an assessor, took part in passing the death sentence on Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

 

It may seem strange for such an eminent politician to have found his final resting place within sleepy Glentworth, yet one must remember that during the 16th Century, Lincolnshire – Lincoln in particular – was an important political centre. Wray was also Lord of numerous manors across the county

 

Wray’s tomb is an imposing structure; a marble and alabaster monolith stretching to the very top of the chancel wall. Effigies of Wray and his wife Anne are set back into a niche, with four smaller figures beneath them. These small figures of women, stand around a foot in height and represent Wray’s daughters, two of whom died in infancy.

Above the figures of Wray and his wife, lies a whole host of stunning carved imagery. Acanthus leaves (a popular Greek symbol of immortality) lie at each corner of the inscription, nestled alongside skulls, torches and ribbons. The tomb is remarkably well preserved and maintained, with many of the painted details remaining vivid.

 

Opposite the tomb, rather overshadowed by Wray and his family, is another beautiful alabaster memorial. Although far smaller, the memorial to Elizabeth Saunderson is similarly filled with well-preserved carvings and striking figures of cherubs, acanthus leaves, crossed bones and hourglasses (see pictures).

Considering the enormous and unusual nature of Wray’s tomb, it is surprising to say that a remarkably similar tomb of full-size effigies lies a stones’ throw away at the village of Snarford. But I’ll leave that jaunt for another time.

 

Wray’s tomb is a true gem in Lincolnshire’s historical and ‘deathy’ fabric, and I would urge you to pass by if you ever find yourself in the county. The church is open during the daytime and relatively easy to access. Although I can’t guarantee they’ll have cake.

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stubbs#Trial,_punishment,_and_further_writing

 

http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/wray-christopher-1522-92

Cemetery Festivities in Finland

Cemeteries, Death, Graves, Traditions, Uncategorized

 

As ‘Burials and Beyond’ is first and foremost, a personal blog, I hope you’ll indulge me as I recount my recent experiences in Finland, remembering the dead at Christmas-time.

 

On Christmas Day 2017, I found myself not at home with my family, but around 1000 miles away in Helsinki, Finland. It is a long-standing tradition among Finns to visit cemeteries around the Christmas period and I for one was more than happy to take part.

The majority of Finnish families (reports quote as many as three quarters) visit the graves of loved ones on Christmas Eve, leaving candles and paying their respects to their dead loved ones. This was our original plan.

I would love to say that my friends and I joined the crowds on Christmas Eve, but owing to a mutual hatred of crowds and an adoration of mulled wine, we waited until the 25th to make our trip to neighbouring Espoo. Besides, Christmas Eve was already filled with a huge meal, festive drinks, a trip to the sauna with a festive cider… not to mention the arrival of Joulupukki (Santa Claus), so we were more than a little strapped for both time and sobriety.

 

However, on Xmas day itself – a day usually reserved for visiting family and recovering from the previous day’s frivolities – we hopped on a bus and began the short journey to neighbouring Espoo. It should be said that I had been spending the festive period in the company of two Finns, both of whom had loved ones buried in the same cemetery, making our journey not simply a tourist exercise, but a personal and purposeful one.

After leaving the bus, armed with backpacks filled with knitwear and candles, we made our way through the snow towards Kappelin hautausmaa (The Espoo Chapel Cemetery). There could be no mistaking as to where the cemetery lay; as we walked the curving roads towards the gates, the warm glow of thousands of candles cast unmistakable shadows across the trees. The whole scene would have been decidedly dramatic and gothic, were it not for my propensity for sudden, sprawling meetings with the ice underfoot.

 

We entered the cemetery around 5pm in pitch darkness (such is Finnish weather), and I was unsure as to who, if anyone, we would encounter in our wanderings. While I obviously can’t comment on the experiences or intentions of all visitors at this time, the atmosphere of the cemetery was not especially sombre. As we made our way down the snowy tracks, we encountered several families with children in tow, some chasing toddlers, some talking intently with one another. There was certainly no hard-kept silence, rather pockets of visitors going about their business in whatever way they saw fit. There was a distinct sensation of individual purpose during our visit – each visitor interacting with no one outside of their group, quickly tending to their own specific plot among a multitude of identical headstones. Far more families than I anticipated were taking time out of their celebrations to visit the cemetery, making such a tradition seem somewhat ageless and very much active, rather than some dying (pardon the pun) practise. As Finns make visits to their living family around the Christmas period, it was evident that those who have died are not neglected.

 

The prevalence of the practise is evident all throughout the lead up to Christmas, most notably through supermarket shelves. Homeware sections, from supermarkets to corner shops, have their space dedicated to a variety of grave candles, from elaborate glass affairs with angels and metal hearts to multipacks of candles in plastic tubes. The latter, plastic-tubed, traditional grave candle was very much the popular ‘standard’ choice across cemeteries. Despite contemporary connotations of candles with Christian practise and remembrance, the Finnish tradition taking candles to graves across ‘Christmas time’ is not an exclusively Christian act, but is practised across all faiths. Many pre-Christian belief systems held ideas that the souls of the dead were closest to the living around the time of the winter solstice.

While no-one is able to pinpoint the origin of their use in cemeteries, the popularity of grave candles in Finland appears to track back to the 1920s. At this time, candles had become more affordable to the masses and, following the Finnish Civil War, were placed on the graves of soldiers.

 

This Finnish relationship with death, or memorialisation to be more precise, appears to be a far more accepting and active one compared to that of the UK.

A 2015 report by Perfect Choice Funeral Plans claimed that ‘half of Britons do not visit their deceased relatives’ resting place.’ Reasons cited ranged from ‘lost track of time’ to ‘too upsetting’, yet the outcome is the same. Ultimately, with or without a central family focus on the deceased, upkeep ultimately passes over to local authorities and similar organisations to maintain the environment around them. Most cemeteries within the UK do not employ the practise of re-using grave plots after a set amount of years, as it continues to spark outrage within certain communities, with buzzwords such as ‘desecration’ and ‘grave robbers’ scattered with wild abandon (see links below).

As Kappelin hautausmaa was not a historical cemetery, the practise of re-using plots is widely employed. Subsequently, most headstones were decidedly uniform, being simple and squat in appearance. In Finland, plots are not owned, but ‘rented’ for 25 years, after which the family may renew their lease for a further 25 years. Depending on the cemetery and age of the plot, families may opt to include multiple burials within their 25 years, as there is often space for multiple embalmed bodies and cremated remains (as is most popular in Finland, with FuneralBusinessAdvisor quoting an ‘85% cremation rate’). As turnover is high, there are regulations in place in terms of headstones and there were few artistically remarkable memorials within the cemetery. This is not to say that the simplicity of family plots to be without merit; it is within the simplicity of the lone family name that I personally felt most potency.

 

As I watched my friends kneel and balance flickering candles against the impacted snow, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of this communal relationship with death. My trip to Espoo was indeed a great visual experience, but more importantly, enlightening. I found that, even if it occurs just once a year, a community – however scattered – can interact with death in such an easy, simplistic, positive, way.

 

 

http://www.nevillefuneralservice.com/files/3014/3038/7260/Half_of_Brits_do_not_regularly_visit_family_graves.pdf

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/06/re-using-graves-means-uk-cemetery-will-never-run-out-of-space

 

http://www.customsofchristmas.com/finland.html

 

 

Satan Speaks: The Devil’s Handwriting

Curiosities, Folk Tales, Satanism, Superstition, Uncategorized

In 1896 John Ashton published his work ‘The Devil in Britain and America’. Within it, he reproduced a curious image from 1532 (some claim 1539), accompanied with the explanation ‘Facsimile of the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.’.

devils-handwriting-scan-2

In Ashton’s introduction, his main gripe with previous works concerning Satanism and witchcraft was that such works were not only repetitive, but that none were illustrated. Thanks to Ashton’s pictoral obsession, this devilish calligraphy was re-introduced to the western world.

Ashton himself was not the originator of the image, merely the reproducer. The writing itself first appeared in Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi’s snappily titled ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas’, which, for non-Latin buffs, roughly translates as ‘Introduction to the language of the Chaldean, Syrian, and Armenian, and the ten other languages.’

Understandably, this is far from being some Encyclopedia Satanica; rather an early (western) study into Syriac and Armenian languages, with a hefty glossary of alphabets and brief studies into the roots of European languages. If you’re so inclined, there are many full, free copies available online. Just remember to brush up on your Latin fluency beforehand.

 

Albonesi’s satanic calligraphy is said to have come about by the conjuring abilities of Ludovico Spoletano, an Italian man of which little else is known. It would seem that Albonesi himself may have encountered the story via his correspondence with the French linguist, Guillaume Postel, with whom he discussed many supposed ‘magical’ alphabets.

It is said that Spoletano summoned Satan himself and asked him a series of questions. The Devil, famous for his consideration and compliance, answered by writing his responses on a piece of paper in his own hand. However, Satan is said to have delivered his answers by levitating the man’s pen and quickly scribbling his answers.

 

The Devil’s answers have never been deciphered as they follow no known, coherent languages. Most notably, the script contains a series of pitchfork characters, some upright, some upturned – which, understandably, has created very powerful images in the thoughts of the devout and occult-minded alike. Contemporary linguists and cipher-enthusiasts have continued to study the ‘devils handwriting’. The writer behind ‘ciphermysteries.com’, interpreted the script as possessing bat-like symbols, in keeping with the devilish theme of pitchforks, and is potentially based on a Latin or Italian root. However, even they conclude that the text makes little sense and may well be ‘nothing more than a joke making fun of Albonesi or Postel’!

 

Ashton himself comments that, although the responses have never been deciphered, he was ‘told by experts’ that ‘some of the characters may be found…(in)…Amharic, a language spoken in its purity in the province of Amhara’ (Amhara being an ethnic division within Ethiopia). As interesting as such an Ethiopian root may be, it is his final comment that undoubtedly grips the imagination. Amharic, he adds, ‘according to a legend, was the primeval language spoken in Eden.’

 

While there are many reported instances of man directly communicating with Satan, there are few that have retained considerable interest over the centuries. It would seem that the fact that this (supposed) interaction produced, tangible, physical ephemera has led to the myth’s longevity.

For what may well be a cipher of pure gibberish, the devilish curiosity of Satan’s handwriting has garnered interest for over 500 years. While it may never be deciphered, its hellish place has been truly reserved in paranormal and occult history.

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://archive.org/details/devilinbritaina01ashtgoog

https://archive.org/details/IntroductioInChaldaicamLinguSyriacA

http://ciphermysteries.com/2013/03/30/the-devils-handwriting

 

Image courtesy of cipherfoundation.org

Born With a Veil: The Curious Talisman of the Caul

Curiosities, Folk Tales, Superstition, Uncategorized

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Like most twenty-somethings, I am in possession of a 100 year old amniotic sac. Thanks to this slice of dried-out tissue, I’ve never feared drowning.

 

As much as I’d adore to leave this post as simply the tag-line alone, I feel some context is needed. 

My preserved piece of amniotic sac is what is commonly referred to as a ‘caul’ and is only marginally weird. Stick with me.

 

A caul is a piece of the amniotic sack that is attached to the baby’s person after birth. Many accounts make particular reference to its presence on a baby’s face; hence, why a caul birth can also be referred to as being ‘born with a veil’. The caul may adhere itself during birth or gestation, but the effect is the same and most ae easily removed by simply peeling it from the baby’s face/person after birth.

Nowadays, a caul birth is incredibly rare, with estimates sitting around the 1 in 80,000 range. Some very patient midwives who endured my questioning all agreed that en caul births are ‘almost always premature births’.

 

A more specialised birth with a similar root name is that of an en caul birth. Despite incredibly rare and requiring specialist intervention, images of such babies are frequently shared across medical social media accounts. An en caul birth is when the child is delivered within a fully intact amniotic sac. Understandably, these images are very striking and are frequently misinterpreted by non-specialised media outlets. It should be noted that as dramatic as these photos are, medical professionals usually rupture the membrane artificially, immediately prior to delivery if it were intact. This means that the baby’s airway would not be obstructed, avoiding further risk of trauma. Understandably, this was not a possibility in years gone by, hence why caul births were infrequent but not completely uncommon.

 

Due to the rarity of caul births, many cultures latched onto the image of the veiled baby and began to view cauls as possessing extra significance or other-worldly powers. Subsequently, cauls were frequently preserved – predominantly by drying and attaching said membrane to a piece of paper, or similar flat surface. Through preserving them, they could be kept upon one’s person for a variety of positive or healing properties.

 

There are varying worldwide examples of superstitions attached to a birth caul, for example;

Roman midwives were known to have taken cauls and sold them at high prices to lawyers as a talisman to aid them in legal victory. In Croatia (supposedly Dalmatia, in particular) cauls were sometimes placed under the pillow of a dying person with the belief that such an act would soothe their passing. In Belgium, it was believed that if the caul was buried in a field, the child would have a long and lucky life, they were also used in potion making in a variety of cultures, mostly for curing diseases such as malaria.

 

Not all preserved birth cauls are presented like my own – my flimsy object d’art is adhered to a piece of paper, which seems to have been the norm for most preserved cauls (from what I’ve seen within the UK). To preserve one in such a manner is incredibly easy, with the midwife requiring to do little other than press a piece of paper across the baby’s face; the caul would then adhere to it and your fibrous keepsake would be removed intact.

 

However, there are some excellent examples of creative caul presentation. The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has in its collection a glass rolling pin from 1855 which once contained a child’s caul. Despite its decidedly domestic purpose, it too was used by a sailor and is decorated with scenes of ships under full sail. A more delicate method of preservation can be found in London’s Victoria and Albert museum. Within its current, displayed collection is a small gold locket with engraving from 1597. Within the heart-shaped locket lies part of the caul of John Monson, who most probably received the trinket as a baptismal gift. This is not to say that Elizabethan baptism gifts were exclusively restricted to bits of desiccated tissue (as delightful as that image may be), as spoons, cups and things made from precious metals were most common.

 

In the UK, as with many other European countries, the caul is most associated with sailors. It has been a long-standing maritime superstition that to be in possession of a baby’s caul is to protect oneself from drowning. Understandably, due to the scarcity of such objects, sailors for centuries have been paying extortionate amounts for cauls, carrying them as added protection on voyages. A sailor, as recorded in Henderson’s ‘Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties’, paid fifteen pounds in the 19th century for a caul which he then kept as a talisman for thirty years.

 

In literature, Dicken’s David Copperfield features a scene where David’s own caul is auctioned – with the character noting that he ‘felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at part of myself being disposed of in that way’ with the caul being purchased by an old woman who ‘never drowned, but dies, triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two’.

 

Despite our modern ambivalence to the whereabouts of a partial amniotic sac, there remains a small group of people who interpret their own caul births as a sign of their special-ness.  This (predominantly online) community collectively refer to themselves as ‘Caulbearers’. This community often see themselves as overly empathetic with the ‘sensation of precognition’ and potentially in possession of an array of (predominantly wet) supernatural abilities; such as the ability to find underground water supplies, predict weather changes, anticipate bountiful catches/harvests etc. Additionally, Caulbearer.org makes the claim that ‘The purpose of the caulbearer is to serve mankind, and to guide men and women to understand themselves and the world and universe within which we live.’

 

Cauls understandably became less prized as the mechanics of birth become less mysterious, however their curious nature still prompts occasional interest. Primarily through nifty lists of famous faces that were once covered by a membrane –

So, I’ll leave you with the fun fact that Napoleon, Liberace, Lord Byron and Sigmund Freud were all ‘caulbearers’, and none of them died by drowning. Coincidence?
(Yes).

 

 

Further reading:

 

www.caulbearer.org

 

http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-sailors-charm.html

 

https://www.babymed.com/labor-delivery/en-caul-baby-birth

 

https://www.popsugar.com/moms/Photos-Babies-Born-En-Caul-41499029

 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O11007/locket-unknown/

St Botolph’s, Skidbrooke

Churches, Graves, Hauntings, Lincolnshire, Uncategorized

When beginning a new project or blog, its all too easy to overthink. Will my content be too niche? Will readers find me boring? So, with feelings of gentle accessibility in mind, let’s kick things off with a trip to a charming local landmark…

 

Exploring the ‘DEMON CHURCH’

St Botolph’s, Skidbrooke

 

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As a Lincolnshire native, I’d heard tales of Skidbrooke’s paranormal happenings since childhood. My sister had run from its grounds screaming after interrupting a candlelit ceremony, my mother refused to visit, my friends…well, they simply didn’t trust my driving.

 

Lincolnshire has more than its fair share of isolated disused churches; with centuries of widespread arable farming, tiny, insular communities all required their own place of worship. As cities grew and machinery took over the role of workers, the inevitable happened and pockets of unused churches, chapels and shrines scatter the county.

 

Skidbrooke (sometimes referred to as Skidbrooke cum Saltfleet) is a small hamlet, last recorded as having a mere 521 inhabitants. St Botolph’s Church lies a little way out from the majority of the houses, with cows and a roadway as its closest neighbours. Yet, despite its isolation, visitors are a constant presence.

 

A quick search of ‘Skidbrooke’ on social media will bring up a mixed bag of images, from family-friendly paranormal investigations (complete with bobble hats and EMF detectors) to scantily clad young women, posing provocatively in the glassless windows. To most visitors, St Botolph’s stands as a local curiosity and for many decades stood relatively intact. However, as with many isolated sites, local legend and infamy took hold

 

St Botolph’s dates from the early 13th century, with later additions in the 14th, 15th and 19th centuries; The Victorian tiling remains as one of the few notable features to have remained relatively intact, seemingly uninteresting to vandals and ghost-hunters alike. While the church does retain some impressive architectural features, its decorative adornments are few and far between. Beside the east window (either side of the former altar) are two large, painted grotesques which have remained remarkably intact, with a smaller one lurking within the south aisle.  There are several fascinating gravestones and monuments within the church; Not all have survived particularly well, but those within the floor itself – mainly dating from the 18th Century – remain predominantly intact and legible (see pictures).

 

Sadly, the 13th century font and the central columns of many windows met their fate and the hands of some well-armed vandals some months prior to my visit, leaving piles of jagged masonry in their wake.

 

St Botolph’s has been abandoned since the 1970s and reports of ‘satanic rituals’, animal mutilation and paranormal activities have been rife ever since.

In the late 1990s, there were many instances of decapitated animal corpses discovered within the grounds of St Botolph’s; primarily chickens, but also an occasional sheep. The purpose of their mutilations are undoubtedly ritualistic in nature at least with visitors recounting bloody symbols smeared across the internal walls. Former church warden Mr R Benton recounted many tales of abuse and threats from visiting groups, and how their nocturnal activities were obvious – ‘Satan worshipping has gone on. They come from Grimsby in the evenings, light fires and write symbol on the walls.’

 

Throughout the multitude of articles within local newspapers, ‘Satanic’, ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Black Magic’ are undoubted buzzwords. Not to rain on anyone’s parade or deprive locals of a juicy, shock-headline, but these labels are wildly applied with little basis. There are pages of ‘Satanists have claimed’, ‘witches have claimed’. These claims seems to have come from the ether, the netherworld, as in all my fervent searching, I have discovered  not one claim, not one local Satanist group with a website directly claiming to have worked there. That is not to say that nefarious and (incredibly) destructive activity has not taken place at St Botolph’s, but the problem lies with vandalism, not with Beelzebub.

 

There will continue to be periodical resurgences of interest in the occult and black magic, especially within generations of teenagers dipping their toes into horror films and rudimentary occult publications. Ritualistic magic, or rather the outward appearance of it, is one of our last great taboos. Such performances retain their substantial impact in small, rural communities, gaining foothold in local legend.  However, in my most recent visit, I found few serious examples of ritualistic activity, save for some scrawled biro graffiti and a smattering of discarded tea lights and the occasional charred feather.

 

Many paranormal groups continue to investigate St Botolph’s, with fewer accounts of other-worldly activity surfacing in recent years. Previously, in 2004, a group accompanied by Parapsychologist David Wharmby claimed to have encountered a plethora of mysterious happenings. Wharmby told the Louth Leader “We heard many strange unaccountable noises, saw flashes in the sky when the weather was calm and experienced weird feelings. We saw small babies among the gravestones and grass.”. Wharmby and his group purportedly also captured images of mysterious ‘rods’; cylindrical objects of around a foot in length that are invisible to the naked eye. There is a smattering of online accounts of paranormal seeing a hooded figure, such as a monk, roaming around the church and its grounds, which is hardly an uncommon apparition in such areas. It is well known that behind St Botolph’s lies the footings of an old abbey, although this is undiscernible to the casual visitor.

 

While many headstones are covered in a bright white lichen, several memorials within the churchyard are most unusual for the county, featuring well-preserved symbols and unusual fonts.  A headstone of particular interest is that belonging to Mary Lancaster (d.1845?) whose headstone features a carving of a flat hand with feminine cuff. While motifs of interlocking and pointing hands were popular in the 19th Century, to find an open hand such as this is most unusual in Lincolnshire. I initially thought that perhaps owing to the small damage in the palm, an item such as a key or arrow was defaced or removed at a previous date. However, I have learned that such ‘halting hands’ are commonplace in larger southern cemeteries such as Abney Park and symbolise the halting/end of life This stone and others, if you live locally, may merit a visit off their own bat (see pictures).

 

While I may seem disgruntled at the goings-on at Skidbrooke, my anger lies with the mindless and constant stream of vandalism that has blighted the structure. While I personally encountered no paranormal activity during my visit, St Botolph’s certainly possesses unusual acoustic properties. The lowing of cattle and shrieking of foxes from nearby fields travels in an unusual and powerful way. What originates hundreds of metres away in a far field, may suddenly seem close and oppressive. Such is the nature of flat, featureless landscapes.

 

It goes without saying, but if you plan a visit, do be respectful. While the churchyard itself is no longer actively used for burials, many of the graves are still visited by families and nearby is a small, modern graveyard, still actively used. Judging by the rate in severe vandalism in recent months, if you were planning a visit to Lincolnshire’s so-called ‘Demon Church’, I’d schedule it sooner rather than later.

 

Have you been to Skidbrooke? How was your experience?
 

 

 

 

 

 
Read more at:

 

https://www.louthleader.co.uk/news/experts-claim-church-is-paranormal-paradise-1-1015932

 

https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/visit/church-listing/st-botolph-skidbrooke.html#undefined1