Saturday, 19 November 2011

Graveyards as a Gateway into History Theresa Breslin







Graveyards…

…are one of my favourite places to be.


OK, it’s a bit odd, but usually I explain it away by saying that I visit them as “Research For My Books” which reassures people, but, truthfully, if I’m travelling I usually visit the local graveyard even if it’s not specifically required for the current novel.

So I’ve trogged round catacombs and crypts, visited ossuaries under the Vatican, shaken hands with the mummified Crusader in Dublin, studied the reconstructed victims of Pompeii, listened to the Last Post at the Menin Gate and left flowers for Édith Piaf in Père Lachaise.

The reason this subject is in my mind is because at a recent YLG Conference in Northern Ireland I was doing a two-hander with the wonderful Sally Gardner on the subject of dyslexia. Sally, author of I, Coriander and The Red Necklace etc enlightened us with personal experience while I talked about the inspiration for and writing of Whispers in the Graveyard. Although this book is not an historical novel the story relies on past events, specifically the burning of a witch. About the time I was writing the book a ring road was under construction in my home town and it was necessary to move the interred bodies out of an old graveyard which lay in the path of the new road.

The Burial Book was lodged in the library where I was working. I began to look at the entries. As a social history it was invaluable, not just for the recording of the passing of my ancestors and how sometimes brief and harsh their lives were, but also revealing the ignorance of the medical profession where regularly people were recorded as having died from ‘Morticia’ which I guess means the cause of death was… death. I studied the gravestones, symbols, designs, codes… and I realised that a graveyard was the perfect place for my dyslexic hero to hide out. Solomon, loves stories and conjures his own from the language of the Memorial Stones. As I began to write and did more research on both my main subjects, the whole thing meshed together - Solomon’s father, the solitary grave, the potential for evil inside everyone, the power of words, the infinite resources of the human mind – the story locked.


After the novel was published my interest in burial places became a passion. And when researching a period of history often I’ll begin with the end, in that burial customs indicate mindset. Particular examples illuminate so much: the occupation and interests of the deceased, size of family, lifestyle and interests, and on and on. Older ones are sprinkled with Guild Marks, or with work tools that are now unfamiliar to us. You can have a guess at some of these. The glove on the 1687 memorial from Elgin Cathedral does not (as one child asked me) mean that Michael Jackson is buried there! Glove-making was big business in those days. Below the personal information about the deceased is one of my favourite inscriptions:




This world is a citie full of streets &
Death is the Mercat that all Men meets
If Lyfe were a thing that monie could buy
The poor could not live & the rich would not die






The Watch Tower with bell was a feature in many kirkyards as the place where someone would guard over a recently interred body and ring the bell for help if the bodysnatchers arrived.

Graveyards are a gateway into history.


Bibliography

Christina Larner, Enemies of God: Dane Love, Scottish Kirkyards: Betty Willsher & Doreen Hunter, Stones: Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, A Historical Account of the belief of Witches in Scotland: Vera Quin & Alan MacAuslan, Dyslexia


Theresa Breslin’s latest historical novel PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION has won the teenage section (12+) of The Historical Association, Young Quills Award, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book Award and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards.

13 comments:

adele said...

This is marvellous, Theresa. I adore graveyards too. My two faves are Highgate Cemetery, and Pere Lachaise in Paris. ( no accent...sorry!) Oh, and the one at Hebden Bridge where Sylvia Plath is buried. Very interesting always...

Theresa Breslin said...

Haven't been to Hebden Bridge Adele but would love to go. I found an amazing website that told you where famous animals were buried, like the Lone Ranger's horse and Rin Tin Tin. Fascinating.I would rate graveyards as a top priority in historical research.

Linda B-A said...

What a fantastic inscription on that gravestone! It deserves to better known. I agree with you about the fascination of graveyards, too, on all sorts of levels. I love the stone angels erected in the Victorian era and I note down names that I particularly like - among them the Cake family and Harry Branch and his wife Olive...

Theresa Breslin said...

Love the idea of an Olive Branch Linda! Re the inscription, a very strange thing happened to me some years ago when I was giving a talk to Primary Children in Plymouth. I began to read out that inscription and suddenly, much to my and their teacher's astonishment, the children began to sing a hymn with similar words. It was most beautiful but quite surreal. No idea of what the hymn is though.

alberridge said...

Graveyards - yes! Perhaps it's befitting to us as historical ghouls, but there's a real fascination to them, the place where the dead are still with us.

My Crimean novel was actually inspired by one - a graveyard in Beeston where the plaques on the little Crimean War Memorial included the unromantic epitaph of 'died of diaorrhea'. I wondered how many children (and adults) had sniggered over that, thought of the reality - and was off.

Thanks so much for posting this.

Mary Hooper said...

Oh, I would dearly love to read this, but all I've got is the title and a photograph. Any ideas, anyone?

Nikki-ann said...

Graveyards certainly are a gateway into history. I've used them during my family history research and at times they have given me new leads to follow.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Mary, I have the same problem! No article has appeared.

Stroppy Author said...

Hope I've fixed the invisibility problem now...

I love graveyards, too. Pere Lachaise, the cemetery island San Michele in Venice, Montparnasse, the Paris catacombs...

Stroppy Author said...

Hope I've fixed the invisibility problem now...

I love graveyards, too. Pere Lachaise, the cemetery island San Michele in Venice, Montparnasse, the Paris catacombs...

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I can read it now! Thank you to Anne. I love that inscription, Theresa!

Mary Hooper said...

Loved this post, Theresa. Graveyards are always a first call for me. The one in Havana is abs. spectacular!

Anonymous said...

Cemeteries are such a wealth of info. just a pity many of the more recent headstones are so limited in details and future writers like yourself will miss so much of the history we are making now. It's so sad to see old graveyards falling into disrepair. I think we visited the Scavi at the same time last year. Lang mae yur quill scratch. (Ann Maria Brooks)