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Black Country Burials - February 2013

The oldest burial sites are found usually associated with monasteries. At Sandwell Priory a pilgrim can be found buried with his staff 500 years after his death. To be buried within a church you had to be either part of the church establishment or be very influential. A fine alabaster tomb can be found in Wednesbury depicting 9 children who all pre-deceased their parents, illustrating the high childhood mortality at the time.

Resurrection men or 'body snatchers' operated in the Black Country, sometimes aided by the church warden or sexton. Tombs often had stone slabs placed on top to deter the body snatchers. Other methods included palisading or fencing and in Cradley there is a novel iron rack with head and foot plate, referred to affectionately as the 'toast rack'.

Not all burials were in consecrated ground since those committing suicide were excluded. Also, outbreaks of disease meant that mass graves had to be used to bury the dead. Following the cholera epidemic in Willenhall in 1849 the churchyard was so crowded that un-consecrated land called Doctor's Piece was used to bury 211 bodies.

Before the introduction of crematoria and cemeteries all burials would have been in churchyards. The south side of the site was usually preferred and so this would fill up first. Also, the land would be piled up to accommodate more bodies and so would eventually become higher than the surroundings.

Following increases in population churchyards became overcrowded and, as some burials were only 2 feet deep, very unsanitary places. In 1847 the Cemetery Clauses Act came into law which provided guidelines for the establishment and running of commercial cemeteries. A series of Burial Acts was used to introduce a system of public cemeteries to replace churchyard burials in towns and cities.

Headstones came in a variety of materials although many of those constructed of wood have rotted and disappeared. Stone was obviously a popular choice, as also was slate and locally made cast iron. They are interesting in that they can provide clues about where people came from and what they did. The cellist on the Titanic is remembered locally and the deteriorating headstone has recently been replaced ensuring that his story lives on (http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2012/12/12/new-memorial-stone-for-west-bromwich-cellist-on-titanic/ ). Others tell the story of losses in a local colliery, of 19 young women killed breaking up rifle cartridges, and of 17 year old Mary Ann Mason shot by an enraged suitor and so are a useful record of local events.

A whole industry developed around burials including warehouses for the sale of mourning clothes and jet jewellery. Victorian undertakers began to monopolise the trade whereas previously anyone could arrange a burial. Epitaphs for the dead were included on headstones often in the form of a commissioned poem and stonemasons were kept busy carving the intricate designs necessary for a suitable tribute to the dead.

Today, as Ian pointed out, we can wander around churchyards to look at our heritage and also they often provide refuge for wildlife. Unfortunately, many are now being lost, either being turned into parks or being used to build homes. We need to value them while they are still available.


Sue Skidmore.

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