Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past

As the saying goes, “a picture paints a thousand words”: but which words? Understanding our past determines actively, our ability to understand the present. So how do we write our own histories, personal and cultural, and therefore define ourselves ?

I cannot quite remember when my obsession with Victorian cemeteries began, though I never think of myself as a morbid person, and of course, my fascination was not anything to do with death, quite the contrary, it was to do with life: the lives of those that had gone before us.

Cadaver tomb

The cemetery is a unique product of the Victorians, only they could have conserved it: a city for the dead. Their beliefs, values and fears are here, written in stone. Nothing reveals a society better then the manner in which it disposes of its dead . Monuments are not simply art works or grave markers that represent their patrons’ existence, or that act as subconscious reflections of aesthetic and commemorative ideals. For, as the texts inscribed on many tombs propose, monuments designed to be deliberate messages from the past to posterity. Unlike most historical sources, which are read, analysed, dissected and contextualised by the inquisitive historian, a monument is the self-proclaimed voice of the past, an extended obituary from the past in to the present. It actively demands our attention and even competes with the visions set forth by other tombs .

Commemorating the dead

Commemoration may take many forms, and serve several purposes. For the wealthy several types of monuments are available, and can be seen as a demonstration of one’s status in life, and a confirmation of one’s place in death, so for the poor, there may be nothing. However saying this, history itself can venerate the death of the poor, for instance when there is an historic event arising out of their untimely demise. In cemeteries, stone crosses, grave slabs and grave markers are extremely common, and many of these are clearly designed to both to make the grave and to serve a commemorative role. For the rest of society forms of commemoration were undoubtedly just as important as for the wealthy, although they are less elaborate and expensive. The dead of the poorer sectors of society might also be remembered by burial in or in the vicinity of prominent locations or features of the landscape, or near to commemorative monuments .


A monument is a type of structure either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event or which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of past events.

The social meanings of monuments are rarely fixed and certain and are frequently ‘contested’ by different social groups. As an example, near to the town of Bewdley you will find this unusual, but not uncommon monument.

Dowles Churchyard

One history group said;

“It is a ‘mortsafe’; a device to protect the newly laid to rest form the excesses of body snatchers”.

Indeed The authorities turned a blind eye to the grave-rifling because surgeons and students were working to advance medical knowledge. They kept publicity to a minimum to prevent people from realising what was happening. In the early 19th century, with the great increase in numbers of schools and students, there was continual rifling of lonely graveyards, however this device was not robust and would not have prevented a grave robbery.

Another group said;

“This is a grave from the Victorian age when a fear of zombies and vampires was prevalent; she could even be a witch. This cage was intended to trap the undead just in case the corpse reanimated”.

I thought that this had a more symbolic meaning so contacted Doctor Julian Litten who responded by saying;

“Thank you for your e-mail. As you suggest, the item appears to be insufficiently robust to be a mortsafe per se. It is, in fact, a wreath-rack, on which such items as immortelles (wreaths of either porcelain or dried flowers) would be placed throughout the year. There are a number (thought not many) of these items around; they were not ‘standard stock’ items and were invariably made to order by local blacksmiths. This appears to be such an item”.

I promptly passed this information back to this group, who were not pleased; I had just destroyed their witch legend.

It is not only the victors who write history, occasionally, we write our own historys….

….leaving so many questions unanswered; who was this person, why did this persons loved ones choose to commemorate their passing in this way, what story is this gravestone telling?

About Morturn

Historian – Photographer – Filmmaker Retired construction professional with a passion for public, social and industrial history. I believe in equality, dignity and integrity for all. Don’t like people who try to belittle the ambitions of others. I am of the opinion that my now life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.
This entry was posted in landscape, local history, objects, photographs, public history and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Symbols are a language that can help us understand our past

  1. Pingback: Niche Interest | Lichfield Lore

  2. Pingback: Serving Time | Lichfield Lore

  3. Jaye Tomas says:

    Just came back from your lecture at the BMI – excellent. Made me want to learn more.

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