Northumberland, History Society

The church of St Peter and St Paul in Longhoughton.  Picture by Jane Coltman
The church of St Peter and St Paul in Longhoughton. Picture by Jane Coltman

We were pleased to welcome Anthea Lang back to Northumberland and Durham Family History Society to talk on From Here To Eternity – Graveyards and Funeral Customs. As usual, we were not disappointed.

We learnt about body snatchers, relevant as Belford churchyard still has its Watch House, being vulnerable because it lies on the Great North Road with easy passage to Edinburgh Medical School.

Fortunately, the practice of stealing corpses from graves died out by the 1820s when it became legal to use the bodies of criminals for medical dissection.

In the past professional mourners were sometimes used by bereaved relatives who could afford it. Women were expected to dress in black initially, followed by grey and lavender for up to two years. The First World War saw the end of this practice as there were simply too many deaths for it to be manageable.

Burial societies were set up in the 19th century, enabling subscribers to contribute financially to their own funeral.

Churchyards were never designed to accommodate increasing numbers of marked graves. Cemeteries provided a solution to this, with the first one in Paris in 1804 setting the plan for the future and quickly being adopted by other countries.

The first Newcastle cemetery was at Westgate Hill in 1829. Cemeteries were designed to resemble parks where relatives could pay tribute to the dead.

This talk was illustrated by an excellent collection of images of gravestones, showing the huge variety of designs and symbols, as well as some interesting epitaphs. Traditional symbols included resurrection, angels, trumpets, the Bible, doves, flowers, serpents, crosses and truncated pillars for lives cut short.

Gravestones were often purchased ready-made from catalogues. Stone masons were not always literate and there are many examples of spelling mistakes, words having to be abbreviated and even the surname spelled more than one way on the same stone.

Not everyone enjoys wandering around graveyards, but those of us who do will be looking more closely in future.