If you were asked to draw a typical headstone, it might look like this – with a simple but distinctive design, with a round-arched and shouldered top. It’s laid out in three parts:
Top: In memory of … Most memorials will begin with a version of this – in this case ‘In loving memory of ‘
Middle: You will then have the name of the deceased person and the date of death and sometimes the age – in this case Alfred Clifford, and the precise date he died, 14th February 1919, aged 57.
Bottom: It is also clear who has erected the memorial – it is to ‘my dear husband’ and this then helps to make sense of the epitaph, in this case, a touching poem:
Death hides, but it cannot divide,
Thou art but on Christ’s other side.
Thou with Christ and Christ with me.
And so together still are we.
This is just one of six verses of a nice little poem called ‘The Christian Mourner’ by Miss Anna E Hamilton, an Irish poetess who had died in 1876, at the age of 30. We don’t know whose favourite poem this was – was it Alfred’s, or was it his wife’s? If you look up ‘epitaph’, you’ll usually read that it is designed to sum up the deceased’s individual character, but this epitaph tells you nothing really about Alfred. For instance, we don’t know from this what his occupation was, (he was a coachman), whether he was a family man, (he’d been married to his wife Alice Ann for 30 years but had no children), or whether he was a local man (he was born in Hampshire and both were employed at Ashlyns House at some point in the previous eight years, for in 1911 they were living near Banbury.)
The essential point about epitaphs is that they can say almost as much about the bereaved as the deceased. Often the epitaph has more to do with our own concerns about death – in this case, Alice Ann’s reflections on finding a way to come to terms with her grief.