In the Beginning…

To the solemn graves, near a lonely cemetery, my heart like a muffled drum is beating funeral marches.

Charles Baudelaire

Nothing says more about the land of the living than the world of the dead. Those we have left behind inspire and inform the progression of our lives, quietly inhabiting the dusty recesses of the earth, sleeping that final sleep, their voices silenced. Yet they call to us, demanding that their tales be told and that their memory never die. Where their stones tattoo the earth, their epitaphs bewail the frailty of human existence and urge us to live as though we shall too be dust. It is up to us to also keep them alive.

In this blog, my intention is to combine graveyard visits with the consultation of archives to introduce readers to, or refresh readers’ memories of, the stories of those who have passed on. My starting-point will be the monuments themselves, as we can tell much about the manner in which an individual lived from the manner in which he died. In addition, I will explore attitudes towards funereal rituals across the centuries, making particular use of newspaper collections to divine the changing nature of  post-mortem custom. As social history and genealogical record, the study of grave monuments and their associated rites is a rich resource, bringing the past, literally, to our finger-tips. As it is said, ‘in the midst of death we are in life.’

In Petronius’ Satyricon, a 1st century AD hodgepodge of acerbic satire and monumental epic, Trimalchio, the freedman host of an ostentatiously lavish dinner-party, orders the sepulchral stone he has commissioned for himself to be brought out and laid upon the table. The monument is the crowning glory in a series of actions designed to render the man’s house as a living and breathing land of the dead. Indeed, comestibles and expiration were not uncommon bedfellows in Roman society; banquets were commonly held in honour of the deceased and images of such commensality appeared frequently on funerary monuments. Trimalchio’s own monument is the ultimate act of self-representation, a caricatured musing on the right way to die, transforming this achingly luxurious feast into the occasion of his own funeral. Such continuous references to the end serve to remind both his guests and the reader(s) to live in the moment:

ergo uiuamus, dum licet esse bene (Sat. 34.2)

So let’s live, while we can do it well.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

Latin epitaphic inscriptions in the Roman period were often characterised by the manifestation of this same sentiment:

Primae / Pompeiae / ossua h{e}ic / Fortuna spondet multa / multis praestat nemini uiue in dies / et horas nam proprium est nihil / Saluius et Heros dant


Here lies Prima Pompeia’s bones. Fortune promises much and does not bestow much to any. Live day by day and hour by hour as nothing is yours. Salvius and Heros offer this as a gift.

Manlia L(uci) f(ilia) Sabi[na] / parentem amaui qua mihi fuit [optimus] / parens uirum parenti prox<i=U>m[um amplius] / ita casta u{e}itae constitit rat[io meae] / ualebis hospes u{e}iue tibi iam m[ors uenit]


I, Manlia Sabina, daughter of Lucius, loved my parent best by virtue of being my parent, I loved my husband only as second to my parent. The account of my life was therefore established as spotless. Farewell, stranger. Live, for death is coming for you also.


The Cenotaph of Marcus Caelius, a centurion killed in the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9BC.  
“Epitaph des in der Varusschlacht umgekommenen Centurios Marcus Caelius und seiner Freigelassenen. CIL XIII 8648 = AE 1952, 181 = AE 1953, 222 = AE 1955, 34” by Agnete is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Such epitaphs are vital pieces of grave information, furnishing details of the dead, acting as a memorialising tool and forming a method of communication with the living. A particular feature of Roman epitaphic inscriptions, as seen in the first example above, was the direct apostrophising of the passer-by in a fashioning of dialogue between the living and the dead:

Rogat ut resistas hospes te hic tacitus lapis / dum ostendit quod mandauit quoius umbram tegit / pudentis hominis frugi sum magna fide / praeconis Oli Grani sunt ossa h{e}ic sita / tantum est hoc uoluit nescius ne esse uale / A(ulus) Granius M(arci) l(ibertus) Stabilio / praeco


Stranger, this silent stone asks you to stop, while it shows to you what he, whose shade it covers, entrusted it to show. Here lieth the bones of Aulus Granius the auctioneer, an honourable man of great fidelity. No more. It was his wish for you to know this. Farewell.

In the western world, this epitaphic habit could be found throughout the Middle Ages and well into the 19th and 20th centuries. Contemporary epigraphic markers on gravestones, however, are now characterised by their brevity and simplicity, lacking the literary flourishes of their predecessors. These poetic renderings of inscriptions honouring the deceased have themselves died out. Nonetheless, we read a grave as if it writes only to us, always bearing in mind the sentiment of that famous Latin funerary motif:

quod fuimus estis, quod sumus uos eritis

quod tu es ego fui, quod ego sum tu eris

quod sumus hoc eritis, fuimus quandoque quod estis.

What we were, you are, what we are, you will be,

What you are, I was, what I am, you will be

What we are, you will be, we were once what you are.

Any comments or suggestions are welcome.


6 thoughts on “In the Beginning…

  1. I’m going to guess that it was Manlia Sabina’s parent(s) who paid for her gravestone, not her husband. But maybe I’m being cynical.

    Somewhere in, I think, Okalahoma my partner say a gravestone that, after the name and dates, said, “Support your local implement dealer.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s absolutely fascinating – I can’t say that I’ve come across anything similar before. I read an article somewhere a few months ago about a man who tended his own grave everyday, but there’s something about having a stone in the living room that’s particularly striking!

      Liked by 1 person

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