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The tombstone whisperer


I spotted this pair of tombstones in a beautiful secluded churchyard at a flower festival over the weekend. This kind of skull-and-bones graveside iconography is very common in Puritan New England, but very uncommon indeed in an English boneyard.

I asked someone if they knew the story of the stones, and they directed me to — I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t catch or, anyway, don’t remember her name. She was in a tent selling books at the other end of the churchyard. She’s the local lady-who-knows-everything-about-the-stones.

As I walked up, she was complaining to another old dear that she was going to have to sell her motorcycle (a Honda 90) because ever since she turned eighty, the arthritis in her left leg prevented her propping up the bike at a stop. That’s such a shame, the other old lady said, you’ve been so mobile.

We fell to talking about the stones. Most of them are cut from granites and marbles and other stones that just melt away in the elements. Year on year, you can see the inscriptions fading.

She made a bit of kit — she described it as an old cider barrel, about 18″ across. It’s blackened inside, cut flush at one end and at a 45° at the other (I’m not entirely clear which end she looks down). She holds it against the stone in raking sunlight. She says it sometimes takes her hours of staring down the barrel, but sooner or later she’s able to decipher them all. At least, she hasn’t failed yet.

I was so engrossed, I forgot to ask about the two stones in the picture. Get this. This old dame bombs around the English countryside on a motorcycle visiting ancient country churches (oh my god, some of these places are so beautiful) to sit for hours staring at the stones. This is what she does.

I want to be this lady so bad.

Good weekend, all! This is our end-of-Summer long weekend, but I’m sure I’ll be around Monday as usual. Unless I buy that lady’s Honda and vanish down a country lane forever.


Comment from Nina
Time: August 28, 2015, 10:20 pm

So do I. It’s got to be better than being in my classroom on Monday morning, anyway. Except for the pay. It probably doesn’t pay very well.

Happy weekend! It’s the first football game of the year and its 99 F outside. I hope our boys are tough!

Comment from Deborah HH
Time: August 29, 2015, 4:12 pm

Stoaty—Please. You’ve got to go back and find that lady. Because remember earlier this week when you wrote about Ancestry.com and genealogy. My mother could have been that little lady. Only my mother sashayed through old forgotten cemeteries in knee high cowboy boots (while my second father stood guard, and armed—worried sick because he just knew she was going to kick up a rattlesnake or a copperhead).

So understanding how the dear old girl’s barrel viewer works would be so valuable as I continue my mother’s work. And if you know how to do it, you can do commissioned work for Americans who want/need a headstone photo (or a pretty drawing of the church and grounds) of great-great-great-great-great-great … well, you get the idea.

(Frankly, I think you are sitting on a gold mine, surrounded by all these old churches. If I had your talent, I’d make beautiful drawings of every one of them and sell the reproductions at these summer fetes. Or you could take photos and use your dazzling photo-fu to make the churches look like they did when first built. I also know you are smart enough to have thought of this idea anyway, but perhaps too modest to think people would be interested. But I’d buy one.)

Comment from Nina
Time: September 1, 2015, 1:43 am

What Deborah said!

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