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
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
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
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
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