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Grave matters give clue to past way of life


TAKE a 1:50000 ordnance survey map which shows the Lisburn District and circle all the places of worship that appear.

They are normally marked using a single cross or a cross with a tower or spire. You might just be surprised at your results.

Not all these places of worship contain burial grounds - if you look a little closer at the map you will find some graveyards and cemeteries marked, an example being those at Blaris.

Some of these places of worship you have ringed will have been relatively modern additions to our society, however, some will not. They will be parish churches which have lain at the heart of each community, some having been rebuilt on the site of former places of worship.

Take a two or three mile radius around any of these consecrated grounds and cemeteries you have ringed and you will find it virtually impossible not to stumble upon another similar feature, such is their frequency.

One of the rarer symbols found on a tombstone at St. Aidan's Parish Church.

One of the rarer symbols found on a tombstone at St. Aidan's Parish Church.When I closely examine the map, I can think of other burial grounds not marked. Take for instance Templecormac burying ground, a place of tranquillity within the Parish of Ballinderry.

Anyone unfamiliar with that area may well have difficulty in locating this interdenominational burial ground which was originally the site of a church, believed to have been demolished by Oliver Cromwell.

Other burial grounds in the district have been long forgotten about. The 'Ordnance Survey Memoirs' for the local parishes recorded in the years 1832 - 1838 provide us with clues and details to the locations of ancient burial grounds, which even then were no longer in existence and the land had been reclaimed.

Some of the antiquities on our map also provide clues to other burial places from much earlier places in our history. For instance, the Cairn at Bohill near Tullyrusk.

Human remains have been discovered all over the area - sometimes having been located at the sites of ring forts and similar archaeological features.

So, at any point in the district, we are never too far away from both known and unknown burial localities. Of course, there are also some private burial sites situated in the district, used by our citizens who have chosen to forego consecrated ground.

There are many of us among the living who visit burial locations to tend the grave of a loved one, and a few who choose to spend mornings or afternoons wandering through local burial grounds looking at the variety of memorials, for genealogical purposes or simply out of curiosity.

There can be a stark contrast between the modern day cemetery, with its neatly laid out low-level polished headstones bearing neat inscriptions, and graveyards in older churches and cemeteries, in which headstones and surrounds can be found in a myriad of shapes and sizes.

The obelisks, pillars and monuments found in some of our older cemeteries introduce an array of variety to the explorer and also symbolise the wealth and eminence of the deceased within the local community.

There are still some tombstones dating back to the early 17th century in the Lisburn area but it is more common to find 18th and 19th century headstones still with legible inscriptions and epitaphs. There is nothing more frustrating to the researcher than a headstone made of sandstone which over time has crumbled due to the elements, rendering the lettering illegible and the deceased anonymous.

There are many late 19th century and early 20th century headstones that use a form of lead lettering. Over time the lettering can loosen and fall out, often making it difficult to make sense of the remaining wording.

One way of finding out who is buried in a local cemetery plot is to contact the local council. This can prove to be an expensive business. The last time I made enquiries with Lisburn City Council it would cost �30 for a resident of the area to check a grave and �60 for a non-resident.

It is not unusual to find small fragments of human remains on a freshly dug grave in an older church graveyard. A plot in these graveyards can contain numerous interments.

The older graves no longer used by the original family are reclaimed over time and often these plots pass into the ownership of a complete stranger.

I recently looked through the burial records of a local church which dated back to 1707. Out of interest I found the number of burials during the years 1707-1730 to average eight per year.

During the period 1853-1857 the average number of burials per year was 22 increasing to 32 between 1866 to 1877. There are no headstones or markers surviving from the very early period.

There were a few headstones existing from the early 19th century, but I estimate there must have been hundreds of burials in that older area of the graveyard un-marked. There are still burials in that part of the graveyard today.

If you ever get the chance to talk to a gravedigger, caretaker or sexton you may find them and the stories they tell more fascinating than the headstones which you have come to view.

In years gone by the local gravedigger, caretaker or sexton was the sole authority on the graveyard layout and the font of knowledge on the locations of each burial. What they had committed to memory often surpassed what was kept in the records.

This could often lead to problems later on when they themselves had entered into rest. It can prove very difficult when attempting to trace the exact burial positions of the deceased due to a lack of records in earlier times.

A good friend of mine is a well known figure amongst the headstones in a cemetery located in the Greater Belfast area. He took over the job of cemetery attendant from his father over forty years ago. His knowledge of the graveyard and the hundreds of burials within never ceases to amaze me.

Despite his expertise, he was puzzled by some of the decoration and carvings on some of the older headstones he pointed one out to me.

Sure enough there was an 'urn like' feature on top of the headstone. I had noticed these before but I had never really taken any notice of them.

After some research I was able to solve the mystery. In days gone by these additions to the standard headstone had significant meaning.

An urn symbolised immortality, the death of the body and the returning to dust. Crossed swords would represent a life lost in battle or a high ranking military person. A column represented nobility. I handed him a list containing dozens of symbols together with their meaning. One of the first on the list he highlighted was a broken column.

This was supposed to represent an early death. "Well there's only one grave in this graveyard with a broken column that I know of!" he retorted.

We decided to put the theory to the test and I followed him through the maze of paths until he stopped and pointed to a grave almost hidden from view by overgrown foliage. I could see the broken column through the foliage. The inscription on the base of the monument referred to a young child. Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Next time you visit a graveyard have a closer look at some of the headstones and symbols on them. I found the one in the picture at St. Aidan's Parish Church in Glenavy. The tomb had been covered up with ivy for many years. Thanks to the good efforts of some of the parishioners the graveyard has undergone a substantial clean-up and the skull effigy was revealed on a tomb bearing little other detail. This may well be an 18th century century grave.

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