Black humour as Robert gives a history of our rites of passage

Gravestones used as decorative walling at St Mary's Church, Todmorden
Gravestones used as decorative walling at St Mary's Church, Todmorden

Robert Priestley, vice-chairman of Todmorden Antiquarians, gave a fascinating insight into the history of churchyards at our meeting last week.

He began by skipping through the long history from early pagan to Christian based rituals from 6th century Britain.

Robert described how a wooden or stone cross progressed from a priest with a portable altar to early permanent church buildings built on an east/west axis with surrounding churchyard. The small northern area was for burying devils, criminals and strangers! Whereas priests were buried in the church nave or under the east window. Wealthy folk were buried under the nave or close to the door, as at St Mary’s in Todmorden where the slab gravestones of the Crossley, Taylor and Sutcliffe families lie close to the main door.

Other activities happened in early churchyards, such as schools in the porch, archery practice, miracle plays and even markets. Stocks were positioned for criminals to be seen and, hopefully, mend their ways!

Lychgates have their own rich history. In early times bodies had to be carried by foot from Todmorden to Halifax, then to somewhat nearer Heptonstall, and latterly to St Paul’s at Cross Stone. We also heard of the progression from shrouds to coffins through the centuries.

Robert continued with descriptions of the history timeline and varying styles of memorials, headstones and family mausoleums. His slides and diagrams aided our understanding of this extensive subject.

The Victorian era brought headstones for all, in catalogues! Improved transport enabled various stone to be used in ever more ornate gravestones.

The most ornate local tomb, like a Grecian temple, is to be seen at St John the Divine in Holme Chapel. Other pictures included many designs of crosses, spires, added maritime anchors and angels.

Todmorden originally had some 20 graveyards. The 19th century saw a huge increase in deaths due to population growth, overwork and epidemics.

The next meeting of Todmorden Antiquarian Society will be on Tuesday, November 5, at 7.30pm in Todmorden Town Hall Court Room when David Evans will present Part 1 of “ETAOIN SHRDLU” (about printing). Visitors are always welcome.