Many churchyards date from Medieval times and may be the oldest piece of enclosed land in a parish. The encircling wall will date from that moment of enclosure. Originally, churchyards did not contain monuments to those buried within them; the lord of the manor and family would have been buried beneath the church in a crypt and commemorated within the church itself, but other people were buried with no permanent marker. Churchyards are believed to contain approximately 10,000 graves, mostly unmarked and unrecorded. Have a look at the ground level on either side of a churchyard wall, the ground inside is often considerably higher as a result of all the burials.
In Medieval times the churchyard was a useful open space where archery practice, markets and fairs took place as well as games and festivals. A stone preaching cross might have been the only built structure apart from the wall. These Medieval preaching crosses make an interesting study and are worth visiting.
In the 15th century lychgates became frequent, sometimes with a coffin stone in the middle, to rest the coffin on during the burial ceremony. Historic churchyard crosses are likely to be the largest structures in a churchyard. Many crosses lost their tops during the Reformation and some were subsequently given a new use by the addition of a sundial. These sundials were probably the only place in a village or town to tell the time more accurately than just by looking at the sun.
In the 18th century permanent memorials for those buried in the churchyards started to become fashionable. Local stone would have been used, and local stonemasons. Symbols on gravestones denoted concepts such as eternal life, the Holy Spirit, purity and love as well as showing tools of the deceased’s trade such as carpenters’ tools, ships, anvils or musical instruments.
The 19th century saw great social upheaval and migration, with a burgeoning urban population. Many churchyards became full and the great urban cemeteries were constructed to act as public open spaces as well as places for burial. These ’Gardens of Remembrance’ were on the outskirts of towns and cities and became destinations for weekend visits, often by newly constructed railway. Many contain remarkable structures including large chapels and catacombs. Improvements in transport allowed the import of stone from a distance including Italian marble, and the Victorians constructed grandiose and complex memorials such as statues, friezes, pillars, and large chest tombs. Different nationalities and religions may have areas within a cemetery illustrating human migration and immigration. Burial grounds chart the changing patterns and customs of life and death from Medieval times to the present day and by studying the built heritage you can see history unfold across the centuries.