GRAVE MATTERS IN WORCESTERSHIRE
Our Diocesan churchyards are living gems; we are aware of the wild flowers, birds, insects and snails, and accept them as vital components in this ecclesiastical environment. Lichens, found adorning our church walls, memorials and boundary walls are also important players in this environment. Many of our churchyards, particularly the rural ones, seem to have an air of permanence. They are oases for many forms of wildlife as well as offering us quiet places in this frenetic world.
Lichens too have this same air of permanence. They are aesthetically pleasing, softening an otherwise stark stone, their sensitivity to the environment causes them to be useful biological indicators. In theory these slow growing lichens can grow on almost any substrate providing that their basic requirements are met. These conditions are generally only found in a churchyard, indeed, in many areas a churchyard is often their only refuge and as such churchyards can be regarded as lichen conservation sites.
A walk through any churchyard demonstrates how memorial styles have changed over the years. Worcestershire’s memorial speciality is the very thick red sandstone seen in Upton Warren, Broughton Hackett, Hartlebury and other churchyards. These solid 300-year-old memorials make excellent bird perching sites, and for those interested in such matters the remnants of snail shells and owl pellets are often found on these stones. From the lichenologist’s point of view these sandstone memorials are special for they have their own unique lichen flora including a small brown lichen rejoicing in the name Hypocenomyce scalaris, through a hand-lens they look like tiny pan-tiles; normally this species is found on hard wood.
This air of permanence is however, an illusion; for all is not well in our churchyards for Grave Matters require our urgent attention. Our attention has been drawn to the possible dangers from leaning headstones and tilting chest tombs so instilling a climate of fear and the possible risk of litigation. This is causing much anxiety throughout all Dioceses in the country. Taken to the extreme it could be argued that over the next 50 to 100 years the decay and deterioration of our graveyards will accelerate and these places seen as increasingly more dangerous and high-risk sites.
So how do you determine whether churchyard memorials are unsafe and if so what action needs to be taken? It is essential to keep a sensible perspective on these matters. The memorials at greatest risk are generally the modern ones. The crosses, angels and other memorials having weak joints generally held in position by pegs and cement. The major church insurers do not envisage parishes embarking upon an expensive programme of hiring topple-testers; often a manual test is sufficient to reveal whether the stone is loose. Some of the older stones, and lichen-wise more interesting, seem to lean at alarming angles. However, these memorials are not so problematical for they are often deeply set into the ground, usually up to one third of the total length.
What needs to be done with memorials that have failed the test? The first thing is not to panic, don’t be pressurised into acting first and thinking later. Consider if it is feasible to reset the memorial, if so cordon off the memorial until the remedial work can be implemented. If this is not the case and removal is deemed essential then consider where the safest place is to put the stone? Moving a memorial out of alignment is often sufficient to kill the lichen cover, such is their sensitivity. So before removal check that no important species of lichen are growing on the stone. Placing the stone flat may seem the most obvious answer but it may well create another health hazard. These flat stones become wet and slippery, through grass cuttings and moss. Ideally lowering the stone and resting it on a brick or breezeblock will increase lichen survival rates and still enable visitors to read the inscriptions. At the moment there are no easy answers to our leaning gravestone problem. The Health and Safety measures relating to cemeteries are strictly implemented, environmental factors are not considered.
I am in contact with other lichenologists throughout the country who have an interest in churchyards. A recent report from Scotland tells of “a squad” taking the ferry across to Dunoon and laying all the gravestones flat in one churchyard. This caused much distress to the local people who had relatives buried there. They had no prior warning that such an action was to occur.
I too have to be aware of litigation factors and at this point have to insert a disclaimer that these are my points of view etc. Surely there must be a better way of dealing with these matters.
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