Just recently me and chris have been filling up our autumnal Sunday afternoons with small walks and geo-caching. For those who aren’t geeks like myself, geo-caching is kind of modern treasure hunt. For regular geo-cachers they use a GPS in order to go along walks and locate a “cache” often a waterproof container hidden somewhere that the common onlooker or walker, (these are quite cutely named “muggles” by serious geo-cachers!) would never know were there. Some geo caches provide you with co-ordinates which will take you along a picturesque walk (these are always free, public footpaths) and your GPS will tell you when you get near to your cache and give you a clue in order for you to find it. I remember one which read “look for the escargot” and after hours of jumping down holes, rummaging through hedges, we spotted a small plastic snail peeking out at the bottom of fence.
Our cache on Sunday however, was a little more complicated. Before we could find our cache, we had to crack the clues to get the numbers for our co-ordinates. So as we stood in this beautiful church in Alpheton, (below) and Chris explained we had to read certain gravestones to get our numbers, and so he shouted, (no joke), “Anne Death, died in what year?” Then the next one, John Brown, died in what month? With bent over backs and squinting eyes, we scanned the gravestones, some were so eroded by rainwater that we had to try to feel with our fingers like brail to see what the numbers could be. Some gravestones were so decayed they were totally blank, and this struck such a strong contrast in comparison to the modern shiny marble headstones, where you could read who they were and what they meant to somebody: “Loving husband, father and grandfather” or “always in our thoughts” and so on.
As I stood overlooking the graveyard, it is difficult to explain the intense of feeling of peace I felt. The wind was shivering the leaves of the trees and the long grass, the sun was gently glistening and I thought what a lovely place to come and provide comfort. But then I thought of the harsh reality of it all, just look at some of these stones that are completely blank, that’s a whole life lost, washed away by the rain. Isn’t that a depressing thought where we are all headed? As me and Chris sat down on a bench entering our co-ordinates, I thought to myself “there’s a poem in here, about this place, blank headstones definitely has something in it… isn’t it sad this is how we will all end up?” and then I thought to myself, “no wonder poets like Philip Larkin got depressed dwelling on such things- what will become of us? Blank gravestones, one by one, we are all lost in nothingness. Uh, how bleak!”
But who would have known that Martha Ann Death who died in 1843, and buried with her husband, would have been part of us finding a geo-cache in 2011? From a quick Google search I was able to find out that Martha Ann Death (formerly Steed), married Samuel Death, on 4 October 1825, in Lavenham, Suffolk, England. They had many children; Samuel King Death, John Death, Robert Death, Eleanor Death, Frederic Death, Alfred Death, Martha Dickinson Death and Mary Death. (That’s one hell of a long time spent making babies and being pregnant – one assumes they were very happy and “active” until Samuel’s death aged 61!) On further scrupulous use of Google I found that Samuel Death was a farmer, and this was typical, as Alpheton church was known for burying mostly tradespeople. Apart from just the bare facts, I also uncovered an interesting little snippet which we wouldn’t have got from his gravestone. Mr Samuel Death is listed as being part of a Sudbury Union-Officio, (also known as Poor Law Unions), in the Bury Free Press, January 1st, 1881:
The Suffolk Records Office explains Poor Law Unions as the following:
“Poor Law Unions: some parishes joined together to form unions before the Poor Law Amendment
Act of 1834 created the New Poor Law. Where this happened, there may be records of the Old Poor
Law among the records of what became the Poor Law Unions.”
Of course, the poor law of 1834 echoes the cruelties illustrated in Charles Dicken’s Oliver, the idealistic introduction of work houses to help aid the “problem” of the poor.
So ultimately, perhaps such things aren’t so depressing at all, as isn’t it interesting how from one short walk on a relaxed Sunday, I was able to use the internet to find out little but telling details about just one person? So really, our common perception of death isn’t really true, it doesn’t erase our identities at all, we won’t end up just being blank gravestones, as something somewhere will still link us with the current moment.
This echoes a poem by one of my favourite poets, John Donne, who in the rather aptly named poem “DEATH” mocks our notions of death being a total end, and that we should not fear it, but death fear us, as it may take our physical body, but it can never take our souls. Ultimately, a very optimistic view of death. So read it, and if over the approaching Halloween period your thoughts turn to depressing or feared thoughts of death, just remember, people are not forgotten by their immediate loved ones and even people like me can stumble across something , and discover people and their pasts, and so, we are always walking with the dead, keeping them alive.
DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go–
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!