Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs

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‘Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.’
From Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard (1750)

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‘…Now, fond Man!
Behold thy pictur’d Life: pass some few Years,
Thy flow’ring SPRING, thy short-liv’d SUMMER’s Strength,
Thy sober AUTUMN, fading into Age,
And pale, concluding, WINTER shuts thy Scene,
And shrouds Thee in the Grave — where now, are fled
Those Dreams of Greatness? those unsolid
Hopes Of Happiness? those Longings after Fame?
Those restless Cares? those busy, bustling Days?
Those Nights of secret Guilt? those veering Thoughts,
Flutt’ring ‘twixt Good, and Ill, that shar’d thy Life?
All, now, are vanish’d! Vertue, sole, survives,
Immortal, Mankind’s never-failing Friend,
His Guide to Happiness on high…’
From James Thomson’s The Seasons, first part Winter (1726)

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‘Those Graves, with bending Osier bound,
That nameless heave the crumbled Ground,
Quick to the glancing Thought disclose
Where Toil and Poverty repose.
The flat smooth Stones that bear a Name,
The Chissels slender help to Fame,
(Which e’er our Sett of Friends decay
Their frequent Steps may wear away.)
A middle Race of Mortals own,
Men, half ambitious, all unknown.
The Marble Tombs that rise on high,
Whose Dead in vaulted Arches lye,
Whose Pillars swell with sculptur’d Stones,
Arms, Angels, Epitaphs and Bones,
These (all the poor Remains of State)
Adorn the Rich, or praise the Great;
Who while on Earth in Fame they live,
Are sensless of the Fame they give. ‘
From the Rev. Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death (1722)

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‘Dull Grave! Thou spoil’st the dance of youthful blood,
Strik’st out the dimple from the cheek of mirth,
And every smirking feature from the face;
Branding our laughter with the name of madness.
Where are the jesters now? The men of health
Complexionally pleasant? Where the droll,
Whose every look and gesture was a joke
To clapping theatres and shouting crowds,
And made even thick-lipp’d musing Melancholy
To gather up her face into a smile
Before she was aware? Ah! sullen now,
And dumb as the green turf that covers them.’
From Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743)

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All the pictures shown here were taken in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Kilkenny. Located to the immediate west of High Street, it was already sufficiently well established by 1205 for Hugh de Rous, Bishop of Ossory to convene an ecclesiastical court on the premises. The church was substantially rebuilt in 1739 and much of its present form dates from that period. It was deconsecrated in the 1950s and has since been used for various uses; there are now plans for its restoration and conversion into a civic museum.
The establishment of a graveyard here seems to be contemporaneous with the church, and it was always a burial place for the rich mercantile families of Kilkenny such as the Rothes and Shees. Within its original boundaries are probably the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments, a reflection of the affluence of the citizens who commissioned them.

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6 comments on “Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs

  1. penelopebianchi says:

    One of the most beautiful blogposts I have ever read and seen! It took my breath away!!!

    BRAVO!!!!!

  2. Wonderful blog, intriguing words and images!

  3. WRH says:

    Very beautiful. But I am saddened to hear of plans to convert this other-worldly haven into a spirit zoo.

    I love to wander in decaying graveyards both here and abroad and I appreciate very much the respect we have in Ireland for graceful neglect. Born out of sheer idleness of course, but still, it provides an ideal environment for dreamers and poets to thrive, if that is not a paradox. I love rambling through graveyards on overgrown paths, speaking to (rarely with) the inhabitants and imagining their lives, long forgotten. Death and decay are synonyms for each other and it is a great shame to impose modernity upon the faithful departed. Do we not say ‘let them rest in peace’ when we bid them farewell? Do we now bury the gravedigger that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter along with the corpse?

    Modern graveyards do not attract me. They reflect in death the living world of their residents: overcrowded and showing no concern for aesthetics. I long to be buried in an old forgotten graveyard, though just to clarify, not any time soon. And what is more sinful than the deconsecration, through sterilisation and modernisation, of our ancestor’s burial grounds?

    It is preservation not vandalism, I hear you say. But how can one preserve the dignity of death’s decay in a shiny modern museum. Death is not new, shiny or clean. We cannot whitewash death. And it is impossible to apply the Health & Safety standards required of a contemporary civic museum to a beautifully dilapidated graveyard and remain true to the souls that dwell within it. Unless of course one interprets quite literally ‘let perpetual light shine upon them’. Preserve rather the spirit of the dead. But that can only be achieved in the ruins bestowed on us by time.

    Anyway, just in case I am being judged as a grumpy old neophobe, here is a little poem I wrote, dedicated to my ancestors. It is called The First Season.

    The wind is death’s call.
    The trees are rendered bare.
    Winter must be here. The days are dark.
    People’s eyes show fear.
    Going through the years,
    Incapable of escaping Spring,
    I return to every place I know.
    Everything is different, yet,
    Nothing seems to change,
    Going back where there is nowhere to go.
    And back, back through time again,
    Further than music or love.
    Beyond reason to the first season,
    From where you and I did grow.

  4. jtjphelan says:

    Robert I have visited the graveyard many times. It’s hard to get into now, which is probably no bad thing. Wonderful article as always.

    • Thank you for your remarks: I think the graveyard is now locked most of the time in an effort to deter vandalism, which had been a serious problem. I spent time there in August during Kilkenny Arts Week when the deconsecrated church was playing host to an exhibition.

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