This month I am looking at the fascinating history of churchyards, cemeteries and the symbols that can be found on headstones. Churchyards and cemeteries can be attractive yet unsettling places. The
word cemetery derives from Greek, and means ‘sleeping place’. They
can be a haven for wildlife and some will have romantic monuments in decay. Sometimes they can be places that evoke fear of our inevitable fate, and the reminder of our sad losses in the past. There
is no typical churchyard – they differ according to denomination, region and date of origin. In this article I will cover some interesting gravestones to be found in and around Swansea.
Firstly, a brief history of the headstone, and when they made an appearance. Burials in churchyards were normally on the South side of the church, on either side of a path and near the nave and
chancel walls. The north side of the church was considered unlucky and associated with the Devil. Churchyards vary in size from very small e.g. any Gower church, to the extremely large one e.g. St.
Under the care of City and County of Swansea council,
there are seven municipal cemeteries; Danygraig (1856), Oystermouth (1883), Cwmgelli, (1896), Morriston (1915), Coedgwilym, Clydach (1920), Rhydgoch, Pontarddulais (1907) and Kingsbridge, Gorseinon
(1935). Wales was the first place in the United Kingdom to have a municipal cemetery, St. Woolos Cemetery, Newport, where the burial took place on 1 July 1854, of a sailor named Cooper. The cemetery
was used as a location for the BBC series, Doctor Who and Sherlock.
What is a headstone? A headstone or gravestone is a marker that is placed over a grave. The stone may also contain pieces of funerary art. Funerary art could incorporate the following: the
personified figures of Death, Time, the Virtues or other figures as well as angels. There are some good examples of these found on graves at St. Matthews, High Street. Located also in this
churchyard, in the corner is a series of paving slabs. These represent the mass grave of those people that succumbed to the cholera outbreak in the Greenhill area of Swansea during
the summer of 1849, claiming 150 deaths. A sad reminder of Swansea’s not so
distance history. Oystermouth Cemetery, has some elaborate pieces of funerary sculpture dating from the 19th century. It was at this time that graves were laid in regimented rows.
The popularity of erecting a headstone grew during the Victorian
period. The most frequently seen headstones are constructed out of granite, marble or other stone materials. In Wales headstones are constructed using either Welsh Granite, Aberdeenshire Sandstone,
Forest of Dean Sandstone or Welsh Limestone. It was during the 19th century that the style of the headstone changed, inspired by the architecture of the period. There were
three ‘common’ types; triangular-topped, derived from the neo-classical, round-topped from the Romanesque, and the archetypical pointed headstone from the Gothic revival. Other common headstones are
the crucifix and the Celtic cross. 19th century epitaphs included, the full name of the person, the date of birth, date of death, and the age.
During this period ‘In Memory’ was the common personal inscription.
A final note, Burial Registers for churches are very important as they record the name, abode, date buried, age and who performed the ceremony. Burials Registers for Chapels, record when the plot was
purchased, and not when it was first used.
Here’s a case
for Sherlock. I have copies of the Burial Register from St. Illtyd’s Church, Oxwich, for the Unknown Sailor as mentioned earlier. There appears to be two entries for him; this could be
for one of two reasons. Firstly that it is a simple mistake or secondly that there were two sailors found on the beach and they are buried under the one headstone. If any of you have the answer, do
let me know.