Four hundred years ago burial in churches was reserved solely for those of a certain religious or noble stature. For the vast majority of those who died, the body was wrapped in a shroud and graves were marked with a simple structure such as a small wooden cross or some stones.
These basic grave markers were said to stop the dead from rising and if they were inscribed it would be with no more than the person’s name, age and the year that they died.
After the Reformation the right to burials in churchyards was extended and the first markers were often flat. There are not many churches still standing in the Liverpool area that were around then but one of them is Prescot Parish Church. Many of the oldest graves have now sunk but in August 2015 a stone from 1677 was uncovered during the clearance of jungle ivy.
From the eighteenth century upright memorials became more commonplace but the information about the deceased was still very limited, as the picture on the left of a headstone in All Saints Church in Childwall demonstrates.
The first purpose built cemetery in Liverpool was the Necropolis in 1825, near the corner of Rocky Lane and Everton Road. Over the next seventy years more than 80,000 burials took place there before it was closed, the headstones removed and the ground landscaped over. Now it is known as Grant Gardens.
In the year the Necropolis opened, the quarry at St James Mount was exhausted and that was converted to a cemetery, the first interment taking place in 1829. There have been no burials there for eighty years and it is now Cathedral Gardens but not all of the gravestones were removed.
Both the Necropolis and St James Cemetery were privately run, but with churchyards full to capacity by the 1850s and Liverpool’s population booming drastic action was needed. The Burial Act of 1857 allowed for new municipal cemeteries out of town and away from the densely populated areas. Toxteth Park Cemetery opened in 1856 and Anfield Cemetery in 1863. As the town expanded, further cemeteries opened in the 1880s serving the parishes of Everton, Kirkdale and West Derby and then in 1909 Allerton Cemetery opened.
These grand cemeteries were designed as places of reflection not just mourning, and the headstones that were erected there memorialised the dead. The sections containing the most elaborate memorials remembering the most well to do, give the air of being in a park with statues rather than a cemetery. The huge Celtic cross marking the grave of Samuel Robert Graves (right) in Toxteth Cemetery states that he ‘represented Liverpool in Parliament’, while a headstone in Anfield tells us that the person who is buried there, Samuel White, was a ‘master mathematician at Liverpool College’. Ornamentation on the gravestones also become common in this period with different symbols reflecting loyalty, someone taken too soon and so on.
Lengthier inscriptions on headstones in Victorian times weren’t reserved for the privileged few. They now began to began to say more about the person whose grave they mark, sometimes detailing the circumstances of death. A walk around any cemetery opened in Victorian times will reveal a huge variety of inscriptions. Random examples from Toxteth for instance are that of John Worrall, who in 1856 was ‘killed by a fall from the hold of the ship Hannah Mary in Brunswick Dock’ and of Edward Ellis who died in 1862, having ‘laboured in the Mount Pleasant Wesleyan Sunday School with faithfulness and success for upwards of 26 years’.
Such practices continued prior to the 1st World War, but the inter war years saw headstones become much more simplified when it came to inscriptions. In today’s more secular times there has been a shift from religiously inscriptions to family epitaphs. Whereas one hundred years ago reference to family members was factual, such as ‘husband of’ now this is often extended to something along the lines of ‘a loving and much loved husband and father’.
Memorial sizes are much smaller now. Many local authorities place restrictions on headstone height and also give guidance on inscriptions. With cremation becoming more common, the plots for the interment of cremated remains are smaller than standard graves and thus the headstones are too. Many sections of cemeteries are much more uniform, with graves being identical in size and material, such as in the area of Allerton in the photograph on the left.
As cemeteries around the world fill up to capacity some innovative solutions are being put forward. In Hong Kong there have been proposals for a vessel containing over 300,000 cremation urns to be floated offshore, while in Oslo a skyscraper several hundred metres high containing vaults has been proposed.
Virtual memorials are now common on the internet and greener woodland burials are on the increase. However most likely in Liverpool the oldest graves will simply be turned over, as they are only leased for a period of 99 years rather than owned. The traditional headstone is sure to be around for many more years to come