In church-yards the deep roots of place are manifest; the transience of our lives meet with symbols of ancient times that remind us of the passage of time before our own. To stop and think as we look at grave stones of people long gone, who have lived their lives in the village or to consider the great age of the old yew tree, now so bowed by age that its huge weight rests on lower branches touching the ground. Thomas Gray, in his ‘Elegy in a Country Church-Yard’ captures this reverential sense when he writes, ‘And all the air a solemn stillness holds’ and he goes on to meditate in this solitary place, on the way in which fate had determined a humble life for the buried dead. Yet, he speculates:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laidThomas Gray
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to extasy the living lyre.
Every time I step into a grave-yard I look at all the names and dates, trying to imagine what these people were like and feel a sadness that most are now forgotten. In them was a life spirit that is extinct. In the grave-yard scene at the end of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ the grave-digger unearths the skull of Yorick, the court jester. Hamlet picks this up and addresses it, asking, ‘Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?’ This is a lament not just for death but a mourning for the very being that constituted what Yorick was, an essence which can only be a pale reflection in memory. The irrecoverable stamp of a personality is what is lost in death and although we try to summon this, Hamlet recognises that this is existentially futile. It is Shakespeare’s great gift that out of a simple action he creates the profoundest insight.
A grave-yard is a place of memory, set apart from the hurly-burly of everyday life and so it also becomes a sanctuary. Of course the cycle of life at the heart of any village is found n the church in many ways in themselves, they often rest on ground that has been sacred for centuries. It is as if they draw primal energy from the ground on which they are built. Ewhurst Church dates back to 1140, although much of the church is later in date. Whether there was anything predating the site is lost in the mists of history but it is true to say that much of the area was sparsely populated and probably deemed uninhabitable. If there are pagan traces they are now lost.