A passionate reader, I recently learned an astounding fact about England’s ancient churchyards. Bill Bryson’s fascinating book, At Home, A Short History Of Private Life (Doubleday, New York, 2010) offers an earthy revelation.
Bryson, a prolific, popular author, lives with his family in an old parsonage in Norfolk, England. One day he and his archeologist friend Brian looked out his second story window at the gently mounded landscape surrounding the medieval church just outside his home. Brian remarked that there are 659 ancient village churches in Norfolk, alone; all seemed to be sinking, as he put it, “like a weight placed on a cushion.”
Are they, really?
This church’s foundations, he pointed out, were at least three feet below the churchyard. When asked the reason why, Bryson had no clue.
His friend commented that the church wasn’t sinking; the churchyard had risen. Bryson, when asked to guess the number of souls likely buried there, thought there’d be eighty? A hundred?
“I think that’s probably a bit of an underestimate,” Brian replied, with an air of kindly equanimity. “Think about it.
A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adult deaths per century, plus a few thousand more souls that didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand.”
This was, bear in mind, just steps from my front door. “Twenty thousand?” I said.
He nodded, matter-of-factly. “That’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.” He gave me a minute to absorb this, then went on. “There are a thousand parishes in Norfolk. Multiply all the centuries of human activity by a thousand parishes and you can see that you are looking at a lot of material culture.” He considered the several steeples that featured the view. ”From here, you can see into perhaps ten or twelve other parishes, so you are probably looking at roughly a quarter of a million burials right here in the immediate landscape— all in a place that has never been anything but quiet and rural, where nothing much has ever happened.”
Heavens! For forty years I’ve enjoyed these lovely, peaceful places, but never questioned why British churchyard landscapes always— well, billow. (American graveyards are mostly flat; we are, after all, a very young country.)
I’ve enjoyed pondering local churchyard epitaphs not yet claimed by earth, time and weather. Occupants composed a few of them. Usually, though, family and friends ventured thoughtful, and sometimes humorous comments that often date back centuries.
In St. Mary’s churchyard in Ross-on-Wye, one stone displays two hands, palms up. It reads:
She Gave With Her Hands.
This one, in Cornwall, remembers a tin miner:
Gone Underground For Good
And, etched in marble in 1690, a droll farewell to a friend who could afford good food:
Here lie the bones of Joseph Jones
Who ate while he was able
But once overfed he dropt down dead
And fell beneath the table
When from the tomb to meet his doom
He arises amidst sinners
Since he must dwell in heaven or hell
Take him- whichever gives the best dinners
Finally, I offer some last words of my own regarding those countless graves embraced throughout the centuries by the rising ground:
So many dear souls have abandoned their bones
To fly to heaven’s glory
Tho’ Mother Earth hath reclaimed their stones-
God always knows each story.