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Every gravestone tells a story

05 July 2013

Honour the dead by sharing the good news with the living, says Peter Graystone

THE graves of 58 women in Croydon Crematorium ambushed me with emotion this week. In the middle of last century, they were Church Army Sisters. Having spent their final years in a retirement home in Croydon, they were buried here.

I visited for a mundane reason. One of the gravestones was reported to be in poor condition; so I went to photograph it. After half an hour trying to locate it, I had not expected to be so moved.

Until about 50 years ago, women commissioned as Church Army officers worked out their vocation by staying unmarried. In return, the Church Army cared for them to the ends of their lives. I realised that, as they had no children to remember them, it is likely that I was the only person for many years who had prayed beside these graves. Photographs taken, I went and bought some flowers.

It was the uniformity of the headstones which moved me: the same design, the same fount, the same format, recording names such as Ada, Maud, and Elsie. In contrast to funerals today, individuality was not important to these ladies in the way their deaths were marked.

Changes in the way we mourn have always been a response to changes in predominant spiritual beliefs. Until 500 years ago, most people, apart from the nobility, were buried in unmarked graves. Pre-Reformation memorials feature bones and skulls, reminding visitors of the urgency of praying for the soul of the deceased person (or paying someone else to say the prayers).

After the 16th century, alongside the new theology of God's grace, appeared a new imagery of angels, and the welcoming arms of Jesus. This grew increasingly sentimental during the Victorian age, and the wording on gravestones became more elaborate. At the same time, the pressure to conform to appropriate behaviour, such as widows' uniformly wearing black, was powerful.

It was the First World War that dramatically changed attitudes. For millions of widows and bereaved parents, there was no body to grieve over. Remembrance became, unavoidably, more important than the presence of remains. Mourning dress was discouraged, because it demoralised the troops to be reminded of the vast number of bereaved women. The 12,000 gravestones of Tyne Cot, the British war cemetery near Ypres, were deliberately identical. Each is 30 inches high. The nameless inscription "A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God" was composed by Rudyard Kipling, whose son John is among them.

All these were centuries during which people died in the hope of life after death. The present generation has a diminished concept of the soul. People increasingly perceive themselves as defined by their own bodies and personalities; so the need for their uniqueness to be recognised in their passing has grown. It is witnessed in the rise of customised funerals with personal recollections and favourite music, secular rituals such as planting trees or releasing helium balloons, and websites on which friends can add tributes.

The 58 Church Army Sisters did not need such "individuality". They devoted their lives to serving the poor, and introducing people to the Saviour, because that was what their Christian faith compelled them to do. In life, their actions and words spoke of their confidence in resurrection. Their decision not to draw attention to themselves in death means that they are still proclaiming this, decades later.

I find this completely admirable. The best memorial we can give them is to do as they did - share with others our belief that we are living our lives in the context of God's eternity. 

Peter Graystone develops pioneer mission projects for Church Army

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