Thursday, 31 December 2015

In the parish graveyard

I wish I had spent more time exploring the parish grave yard.

But when you are growing up wandering past the monuments to the long dead is not very high on the agenda.

And yet for the historian they are a powerful insight into what a community was like in the past and Eltham’s is no different.

Here for centuries were buried the good, the wealthy and those whose rank and occupation was such that they have left few records.

But some at least of those that lived here will be recorded both in the parish records and in the grave stones.

Not that I intend to name them or for that matter to dwell on their lives but more to reflect on what can be learnt from combining the inscriptions with those held in the church books.

Once upon a time the researcher had to visit the individual parishes, or walk through the often overgrown church plots seeking a family member or just getting a sense of things like life expectancy and the pattern of
names.

Now of course most records are held on microfilm in local history libraries and increasingly are being digitalised.

All of which makes possible for the historian  to track individuals from the comfort of a kitchen table.

Now there are those who regret this development, but I am not one of them. What once took months of slow laborious work can be undertaken in a few hours and opens up parts of the country which would otherwise be a train away.

Of course there is still a thrill at holding an old document secure in the knowledge that perhaps only a handful of people have touched its pages in two centuries.

Likewise to stand in front of the gravestone of a long lost family member is to get close to them.

All of which I think has written me into a new series of stories, matching those buried in the grounds of St John’s with the stories of their lives from the census returns, rate books and casual comments of their contemporaries.

And for all those who like a bit of homework, I recommend a visit to the parish graveyard and a walk with history.

Pictures courtesy of Jean Gammons

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