Norfolk author on reading final resting places

Author Peter Stanford at St Margaret's Church, Burnham Norton

Author Peter Stanford at St Margaret's Church, Burnham Norton - Credit: Archant

Graveyards may be places associated with death, but they can tell us fascinating stories about long-lost ways of life. Author Peter Stanford told KEIRON PIM how to read a graveyard on a walk around a Norfolk church.

It is, to use Peter Stanford's darkly comic phrase, a view to die for. On this sunlit but finger-numbing April morning, the cold blue sky is vast and uninterrupted but for a flint church tower and a surrounding of bare trees just coming into leaf. A sliver of sea and a sandy bar on the horizon denotes Scolt Head Island; a black stub and white cross is Burnham Overy windmill; from there an khaki sweep of saltmarsh stretches down to the foreground, where the springy turf is cluttered with clues to the history of this small north-west Norfolk parish. Gravestones, hundreds of them: some smooth and legible, right-angled to the ground, others salt-scoured and lichen-covered, leaning back after two centuries' commemoration of otherwise forgotten parishioners.

One day Peter hopes to be among them. Well, 'hopes' might be the wrong word, but death comes for us all and this feels the right place, which is some tribute from a man who has seen more cemeteries than most.

It is a proclamation he makes for the first time in his new book, How to Read a Graveyard, and doing so felt like something of a milestone. At 51, Peter has no intention of taking up residency in the near future but it is, at least, useful to get it on the record now, not least as he may face an added hurdle in being a Catholic. Chattering on in an accent containing a soft trace of his origins on the Wirral, he walked me around St Margaret's at Burnham Norton detailing several reasons for wanting to spend eternity there.

'One, there's a feeling of wanting to be buried where you belong, and I feel I belong around here,' he explains. With his wife Siobhan and children Kit and Orla, Peter has divided his time between nearby South Creake and London for some years.

'Secondly, and completely illogically, for the view. I'll be six feet under so won't be able to see the view but there are two vague bits of logic to this.'

The first concerns its proximity to the sea; in researching the book he noticed that many famous burial grounds are close to water, which reminded him of how in the fourth and fifth centuries Celtic Christian monks would 'often spend hours half-immersed in water, particularly on the west coast of England and Ireland and Wales, looking out at the far horizon,' sensing something of eternity at that distant point where the sea met the sky, and even hoping that they might for a moment imagine the unimaginable beauty of heaven.

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'And in a very practical sense,' Peter says, returning swiftly back to Earth, 'there is that research by the Co-operative Funeral Society which says that most graves cease to be visited after 15 years, and I slightly hope that because my children love this place so much and have so many happy memories out on the beaches here and at Scolt Head Island, they might come and visit me a bit more.'

Peter is a former editor of the Catholic Herald whose previous books include biographies of Cecil Day-Lewis and Lord Longford. Researching this one took him around Europe, to burial places as diverse as Paris's Pere-Lachaise, the Roman catacombs, Greyfriars' Kirkyard in Edinburgh, a Jewish cemetery in Liverpool, an eco-burial park in Buckinghamshire and the Commonwealth war graves of northern France. In so doing he learned how to observe glimpses of lost lives and changing religious trends by scrutinising the superficially unpromising sources of countless cold grey headstones.

So how do you read a graveyard? What tales might one reveal to those who look hard enough? Some are specific, others general. The former here at St Margaret's would include the grave bearing a pale stone anchor beneath which lies Richard Woodget, a master of the Cutty Sark, pictured left; another first appears to be a typical Commonwealth war grave – a narrow slab of creamy Portland stone with a gently curved top – but on closer inspection turns out to mark the final resting place of Corporal Albert Batterbee, a 28-year-old member of the Home Guard killed in 1942.

As most country graveyards are filled gradually in rows from one end to the other, to wander through them is to walk through a narrative of changing tastes and beliefs. Once deciphered the iconography tells small sad stories: daisies indicate a child's grave, and a broken column alludes to a life cut off in its prime.

But the broader tale that country graveyards tell is more revealing. It is a story of the demise of superstition and communality, and the rise of individualism and, some would say, vanity.

For the first point that becomes apparent on a few moments' reflection is that while our churches such as St Margaret's are around a thousand years old, their oldest graves are only half that age. What happened to the medieval inhabitants of the Burnhams?

Back then to be buried in an unmarked grave was quite normal: it was a time when the concern was not to be remembered on Earth so much as accepted into heaven. Death was also present and familiar in a way that it is not now; Peter quotes Philip Larkin's line about the 'costly aversion of the eyes from death' in describing our current confusion and denial about mortality, whereas in medieval Norfolk people saw dead bodies all the time.

'There was a communality around death,' says Peter. 'It's simple compared with the way we do it now, but honest, in that people would die in a village like this village, and they would be wrapped up in a winding-cloth, put on a bier – not hidden inside a coffin or put in those black private ambulances we see today – and they would carry it in a procession up to the church to the lych gate and hand it in to the care of the church.

'And then the important thing was that it was in the care of the church, and you had medieval prayer guilds who would all join and pray together for people and mark the anniversaries: the first month, the second month, the third month, and then as the years went by.

'There's a real sense of common commemoration of all the dead of the parish. You're praying for everybody.

'And we still have vestiges of that: in the little Catholic church I go to we remember the people who died that month with the bidding prayer, where we run down their names, so it's the last remnant of that.'

With the Renaissance came a growing emphasis on the value and potential of the individual, and by the 17th century we start seeing the interment of well-to-do parishioners within churches. St Margaret's aisle features a stone marking the graves of John, William and Bridget Thurlow, who died in 1684, 1630 and 1655 respectively, 'All three Lineally Defcended of ye Thurlows of Burnham Ulp', that being one of the constituent settlements of modern Burnham Market.

This practice often met with disapproval. Peter cites a 17th century diarist, John Evelyn, who mentions his father-in-law's annoyance at the 'novel custom of burying everyone within the body of the church and chancel... making churches charnel houses being of ill and irreverent example and prejudicial to the health of the living, besides the continual disturbance of the pavement and seats, and several other indecencies…'.

The earliest outdoor headstones begin appearing around this time, none of them on the northern side of a churchyard. Its most shadowy area was deemed the likeliest spot for the devil to lurk within, and no one wanted to be buried there. Only later did these parts begin to fill up as folklore receded and necessity prevailed.

Other clues to lost practices remain extant if you know where to look. Over in an adjunct to many a churchyard lay the parish's 'potter's field' (a reference to St Matthew's account of how Judas' 30 pieces of silver were buried in a clay field unfit for agriculture), reserved for unbaptised babies, suicides and others deemed to dwell in limbo. And overlooking many churchyards is a yew tree, appropriate not just because its longevity connotes eternal life but also because its poisonous berries deterred ravenous wild animals from digging up the corpses.

The next two centuries saw marble memorials on churches' interior walls grow in popularity and then, with the coming of the Victorian era, ever-more elaborate outdoor constructions combining angels and cherubim, crosses (deemed too idolatrous for Protestant tombstones until then), and maudlin lines culled from Shakespeare or the Bible: 'Father, the hour is come. S. John XVII, I', reads one at St Margaret's.

Other graves looked like beds, as 'the Victorians liked all that coy 'falling asleep' malarkey', Peter adds.

All combined to ratchet up the melancholia. As beautiful as many are, the grandest graves' air of sadness owes less to any lingering grief for their inhabitants than to their function as monuments to human vanity, something Peter observed while wandering through the vast Cimitiere Pere-Lachaise and espying – as if he could miss it – the 20m-high tomb of Felix de Beaujour, a 19th century diplomat.

'I think he's got the biggest monument in this graveyard full of incredibly famous people, a gigantic tower that he built there. And we don't know who he was at all; the only thing we remember him for is being so arrogant and vain that he built himself an enormous gravestone!'

Necessarily a bleak humour attaches itself to the subject, and there is a certain dark absurdity in the way that fate can undermine the most detailed posthumous planning: even the most obsessive control-freak in life must relinquish the reins and hope that others will do their bidding. 'Who can know the fate of his bones?' wrote another Norfolk ruminator on death, Sir Thomas Browne, and even if they are consigned to the desired spot, we cannot always control the epitaph above them. While Spike Milligan's family honoured his desire for a headstone bearing the words 'I Told You I Was Ill', albeit rendered in Gaelic to overcome his Sussex diocese's objections, Peter cites Dorothy Parker as someone whose executor left more to be desired.

After Parker's death in 1967 the friend she entrusted with interring her ashes instead left the urn on a shelf at home for 21 years, until finally the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People intervened and buried them in a memorial garden in honour of her civil rights work.

It was a worthy act but one cannot help wishing that the acerbic American author and critic had had her own way on a matter she returned to throughout her life.

At one stage she proposed her headstone should bear the legend: 'Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment'; at another, she suggested it read 'This is On Me'; but finally, and most famously, she opted for the words 'Excuse My Dust'.

t How to Read a Graveyard is published by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99.