Tales from beyond the grave

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady unearths new ideas for learning, from history to maths.

Photography by Tim Smith

The most wonderful graveyard I have ever visited was near the sea in Newfoundland in Canada. In this sombre burial ground, the 18th and 19th century headstones spoke of the dangerous, often tragic lives of sailors who had found their way voluntarily or through misfortune to this storm-wracked part of the world. "Born in Plymouth" (or another part of southwest England); "lived here for many years"; "lost at sea", were oft-repeated phrases in this misty churchyard, as were the stories of children swept away by illness and women dying in childbirth.

But you don't have to go to Newfoundland to discover how burial grounds can enhance the human dimension: how, paradoxically, cemeteries can make people come alive. There are plenty in this country, from small rural graveyards to huge Victorian "necropolises", with thousands of often poignant glimpses into past lives and deaths. Take infant mortality: it is writ large in graveyards and cemeteries. St James' Churchyard in Cooling in Kent, for example, is believed to be the setting for Pip's dramatic encounter with Magwitch in Great Expectations. The graves of 13 babies are probably the ones described by Dickens as "little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their (parents') graves".

Look at what gravestones tell us about attitudes to death and what comes after: "Lo the pain of life is past"; "They flourish in a higher sphere"; "Peace perfect peace", are some typical 19th century inscriptions. And note the differences between inscriptions for men and those for women. Even the positioning of names on the gravestone tells us a lot about their respective stations. A Victorian man is usually listed before his wife, even if she died first, and often on a woman's grave her husband's name is larger.

"She discharged her respective duties of wife and mother in the most exemplary and affectionate manner, was universally esteemed by her numerous acquaintances for her many virtues" is a typical effusive description of a 19th century woman.

Compare this with the typical inscription for a man, which is more likely to mention his job and more practical achievements. The gravestone of Walter Frankish, born 1873, reads: "killed at the siege of Mafeking on December 7 1899 and residing at the East London Cape Colony, he was one of the first to join General Baden Powell's Protectorate Regiment immediately after the outbreak of the Transvaal warI" In the Victorian era, death became more industrialised, and monuments were an opportunity to show off status and achievement. Before then, most people were buried in the parish churchyard or graveyard. The industrial revolution brought a huge increase in population and, from the 1820s, companies and then city authorities began to set up cemeteries. Bodies were transported out of the city, only possible in many places after the building of the railways.

Gravestones in cemeteries represent only some of the people who were buried there. The burial register often reveals considerably greater numbers. Those without money were buried around the perimeter, with the very poor in mass unmarked graves.

This country's long history of immigration is also often illustrated in burial grounds. In London in particular there are Huguenot graveyards, dating from the 17th century, that provide an opportunity to discuss the UK's once deserved reputation for giving shelter to refugees. Large Victorian cemeteries may also contain the graves of immigrants, including those of different religions.

For the teacher, history might be an obvious focus of graveyard study, but it is not the only subject that can be illuminated. Burial ground visits can be used as: na source of inspiration in English and art (children are fascinated by visually interest-ing headstones, monuments, symbols and inscriptions); nmaterial for a mathematical study, which might be simply calculating how old people were when they died from the dates on the gravestones, or a sophisticated demographical investigation; nthe basis of a scientific investigation into the use of different stones and other materials; nan opportunity to discuss death, what it means, and how it is treated by different religions; na good place for environmental studies, as graveyards are often ancient habitats.

Many of the more famous burial grounds, particularly the huge Victorian cemeteries in cities, have educational programmes that fit in with schools' curriculum needs.

Small local graveyards and cemeteries can yield just as much educational gold, perhaps even more, because children can relate the graves to their local community. By using a copy of the census andor burial records or oral histories, they may be able to build up a picture of a local family: where they lived, how big the family was.

A visit to a graveyard or cemetery, like most outings, needs careful preparation. Teachers should check any interesting possibilities in advance.

Worksheets can be useful, and lists of symbols or examples of the kind of language the children might look out for. And, of course, care has to be taken. A graveyard is not a museum or a park in anything but a very superficial sense. Permission needs to be sought, along with information on any unstable structures and no-go wildlife areas. Recently bereaved children may need special attention. And just before the visit, children must be warned to care for the environment and not to trespass on the privacy of mourners.

With these caveats, children should be free to wander within a designated area and complete any number of activities that can be followed up in the classroom. Here are just a few suggestions:

Cross-curricular surveys

Bring in "a treasure chest", or several for different groups, containing objects relating to an individual who is buried in the graveyard. These might include an old school register, a copy of part of a census, or a photo. Ask pupils to find the grave and record all they can about that person.

Give them worksheets to record what they find on one or more graves: the shape, height and width of the gravestone, the name, age, dates of birth and death of the person; any symbols used on the headstone; an epitaph; the type and condition of the stone; relatives' names and dates. Is it a family or a single grave?

Using particular graves, burial records, local histories and perhaps the census, children in small groups might be able to trace the stories of individuals, find out where they lived, how they earned their living, and glean more details about their families.


Symbols are a very powerful way of stirring children's interest. They are everywhere in graveyards and cemeteries, particularly on headstones dating from the 19th century .

After a discussion on the use of symbolism in graveyards, ask children to seek out as many different symbols as they can, using a list for reference, and make a sketch or a rubbing, or take a photograph. What do the symbols represent? This could be part of a wider investigation. Later, pupils can examine their immediate environment to identify signs and symbols, and discuss those used in other cultures.

Language, literature and RE

Children can collect epitaphs and discuss what they reveal about attitudes to life and death. What kind of language is used? Later, they might investigate how other religions view death.

The atmosphere in a graveyard, perhaps in the evening, is an evocative subject for children to write about. There are vivid descriptions of graveyards and tombstones in literature that might provide inspiration: Dickens' Great Expectations is a particularly good example. Or pupils might write about their response to a particular gravestone.

Ask pupils to look at the origins of some of the surnames on the gravestones and investigate fashions in first names at different times. They can also research the origins and meaning of terms used on inscriptions, including RIP, AD, Esq.

Facts and figures

Age at death is an obvious feature of gravestones and can be studied on an ad hoc basis or more systematically through-out the graveyard and by using burial records. Pupils can calculate average life expectancy, and make a comparison between the graves of rich and poor people; graphs and bar charts can be produced on computers.


A wide range of materials is used in the making of gravestones, including sandstone, limestone, slate, granite and marble. If you have a selection of different types of rock, show these to pupils before they set out on their own investigation. Look at various characteristics: texture, appearance, hardness, permeability (syringes with some water in them can enable children to test this).

Discuss why certain rocks might have been used in preference to others. Were some materials more expensive than others? Where do different types of rock come from?

Further study

* For those who want to go deeper into the subject: Recording and Analysing Graveyards by Harold Mytum (Practical Handbook in Archaeology Number 15). Available (price pound;9.50) from the Council for British Archaeology, Bowes Morrell House, 111 Walmgate, York YO1 9WA.

* English Heritage has a range of teachers' guides on different subjects, including using memorials. For more details, visit their website at www.english-heritage.org.uk.

* Victorian Cemeteries in London, part of the website

www.gendocs.demon.co.uk, contains a useful history of interesting Victorian cemeteries.


Hunt the Daisy, published by the Living Churchyard and Cemetery Project, is an education pack for juniors that aims to help teachers use the resources of their local burial ground for studies of the environment. The LCCP also has a large range of leaflets. Copies free to schools from LCCP, The Arthur Rank Centre, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LZ. Tel: 02476 858347.


The Victorians used many images and symbols on gravestones. Some are easy to understand, such as the cross as a symbol of the Christian religion. Some are taken from the Romans, Greeks or Egyptians. Others are from nature.

Some of the most common symbols are listed below, with their probable meanings; others that are fairly common include occupational symbols (a horseshoe and hammer for a blacksmith, for example), Masonic and national symbols, for example, the Welsh harp.

* Angels and cherubs: guardians of the dead, piety

* Rose: innocence and goodness

* Lamp: knowledge, a light by which we can know the "Truth"

* Urn draped with a cloth (from the ancient Greeks and Romans): sign of death

* Flaming urn: new life

* Ivy: an evergreen - the memory of the person will never fade away

* Lily: piety and purity

* Clasped hands: often means farewell; also a promise to meet again

* Torch (from ancient Greece): a symbol of life and lights (upturned torch: lifelight that has gone out)

* Obelisk (from ancient Egypt): eternal life

* Dove: peace and purity

* Book: a sign of faith, and the book of life

* Broken or crumbling column (from ancient Greek and Roman temples): sign that all things crumble

* Anchor: hope and safety

* Broken flower: sign that the person died very young or suddenly

* Rocks: strong and safe.


Many cemeteries are famous because of special histories, monuments or environment. A comprehensive list is available from the National Federation of Cemetery Friends: call: 020 8651 5090. Here are a few: * Highgate Cemetery, London. Listed as a place of outstanding historical and architectural interest. Contains grave of Karl Marx. No official programme for schools but educational tours can be arranged (send 40p sae for details to Highgate Cemetery, Swains Lane, London N6 6PJ).

* Abney Park, north London. London's most important non-conformist cemetery. Programme of educational activities. Tel: 020 7275 7557.

* Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. In 1854, its owners, the London Necropolis company, claimed it as the largest cemetery in the world. A special private train ran from Waterloo. The Parsee or Zoroastrian ground is unique and the original Muslim ground was the first in Britain. Tel: 01483 232654, or visit www.surreyweb.org. ukbcs.

* Kensal Green Cemetery, north-west London. A superb collection of monuments and catacombs, many of eminent people. An education programme is being developed. Mary Seacole is buried in the adjoining St Mary's Catholic Cemetery. Tel: 07951 631001. website: www.kensalgreen.co.uk.

* Nunhead Cemetery, south east London. Blend of wild conservation area and Victorian monuments. School programmes in many subject areas. Tel: 020 7732 9535.

* The Rosary, Norwich. The first non-denominational cemetery in the country, with a fine range of Georgian and Victorian monuments. For information on educational tours e-mail: for@benthicsciences.co.uk.

* The General Cemetery, Sheffield. Impressive monuments in a picturesque site. Wide-ranging education programme. Tel: 0114 2798402 or visit www.fogc.org.

* Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, east London. The Soanes environmental education centre, located in the park, does a lot of work with schools. There is also a nature trail. Call Terry Luke on 020 7264 4660.

* York Cemetery. A large imaginative programme of educational activities. Visit www.yorkcemetery.co.uk.

* Beckett Street Cemetery, Leeds. Leaflet on the Cemetery Trail available from the Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery, FOBSC Leaflet Service, 2 North Park Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire LS8 1JD. Send 20p for each leaflet and an sae. Visit www.fobsc.20m.com.

* Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford. Trail guide and booklet on nature in the cemetery available. Call 01274 631445. Visit website www.bradford.gov.uktourism.

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