Discoveries in Suffolk graveyards

Reporter: Anne Grimshaw

It has been said that Sudbury Society meetings should inform, educate, interest and entertain. That’s a tall order but I endeavoured to fulfil all of these for the October meeting. As it was nearly Hallowe’en I thought a slide-talk about gravestones would be seasonal followed by a somewhat spooky story of Sudbury airfield.

 

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Spending hours in a graveyard or cemetery probably isn’t most people’s idea of fun but it’s what several members (and non-members) of the Suffolk Family History Society do every fortnight on summer Saturday mornings (if it’s fine). Words on gravestones, or more correctly, monumental inscriptions, are just as valuable as parchment and paper documents for they can hold information not recorded elsewhere, particularly before the days of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1837.

Transcribing these memorials is sometimes a bit like doing a crossword: W-blank-blank-L-blank-A-blank. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that is very likely to be WILLIAM! Less obvious is “L-blank-blank-blank-H but once you have grasped the context and the phrases and quotations used in the past, you know it will be LYETH, as in “Here lyeth the Body of…”

Sometimes we need to enhance the lettering and we do this in various ways (brushing, water spray, chalk, shaving foam) but also image-editing computer software to increase contrast, sharpen up, darken or lighten a digital photo of the memorial.

As well as word puzzles comes getting the ‘feel’ for memorials and how they differ from century to century – the earliest are the 1600s. In the 18th and 19th century there was no shortage of hourglasses, skulls, skeletons and bones – all reminding us that man is not immortal and sooner or later each will have “departed this life”.

Later on in the 19th century was a fashion for angels and open books. The 20th century has perhaps the dullest memorials with the least interesting inscriptions. It is also noticeable that in the 20th century people rarely die: they ‘pass away’ or ‘fall asleep’ after which they are “gone but not forgotten” and are “reunited”.

Sometimes people’s occupations are given: admiral, soldier, mayor, vicar, tailor, mason – and even an employee of HM Inland Revenue! (We had a giggle over that one!)

A graveyard or cemetery is a microcosm of a village or town through the years: history from a totally different angle taking in people, design, religion, attitudes, tastes, events, health… All human life (or rather death) is there… If you would like to join in please contact: sudbury@suffolkfhs.org.uk

     After the break, I told a curious tale of Sudbury’s American wartime airfield, about a horse, an airman, a photograph and an identity dog-tag… Was it fact? Was it fiction? Whether it’s true I’ll leave to you!