Sunday, 2 February 2014

The testimony of epitaphs

Victorians loved splendid cemeteries. They built them with lovely views, often on prime land - as if the dead would enjoy the view! Famous Highgate Cemetery in London was situated with wonderful views over the whole of London. Sadly, it is now completely overgrown and nothing of London, in the distance, can be seen. In its day, Highgate would have looked a bit like this Victorian cemetery - which is where all my great-grandparents are buried.

Ingenious Victorians overcame the problem of stone quickly eroding by the technique of metal lettering. The result is that there are messages to us, even today on the gravestones. As people reclaim more and more English family history, there may well be a resurgence of interest in “epitaphs”. I found my grandparents’ grave today, not expecting to find any evidence about their feelings, or any signs of Christian faith. I was amazed when I found these hardly legible metal words on my great grandmother’s gravestone:

“and there will be no more pain”.... and recognised it as a quote from Revelations 21:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain”.

My great grandmother (died 1928) may have endured much emotional pain in sharing the sorrows of her many children and/or she endured a lot of chronic pain. I’m glad that her home village that is remembered in the name of a street in London today - that she accidentally left her historic “mark”.
My great grandfather (died 1919) had a more poetic epitaph but equally uplifting, as it seems Christian too:

“Gone, nay, just waiting on God’s wide shoreline, the coming of life’s vessels - yours and mine”.

Searching online, this thought is mentioned in relation to an Australian soldier lost in World War I. It may be a kind of reference to Revelations 6.11 about the martyred dead waiting on God for the final Apocalypse:

“Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer”....

It suggests the assurance of those who are trusting entirely in Christ’s work for salvation. We assume that most epitaphs dating from the early twentieth century will be Christian, due to the dominance of “cultural Christianity” - but this is not actually true. There were plenty of non-believers, as evidenced by their epitaphs.
I took a photo of this memorial as it stood out as being clearly Christian, showing the liveliness of the faith of Victorian Sunday school teachers - erected by their grateful pupils. It even had a couple of Bible verses inscribed in white marble which does not erode at all:

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