Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grave matters

Just as I was about to set off for the Eucharist this morning, I had an anxious call from Matt the project engineer overseeing the street paving, amongst other things. The contractors, in the process of removing the tarmac from the final section of the Victorian churchyard path had found a brick vault, covered with stone slabs. Another had been identified at the east end of the path, but it had been filled in with earth a long time ago. This was not the case with the second. Underneath the slabs was still a void containing "three bodies" he said ominously. Work had to be halted until a decision could be taken, and time to complete the path was already in short supply.

After the Eucharist, I met with Dylan the foreman and his team to inspect the site. They had returned the single slab moved to its proper position, but opened it up again for me to see. I took a few photographs in anticipation of having to send pictures to Evan, our PCC secretary who is also an archaeologist at the Museum of Wales in Cathays park. Much to my relief, he'd received a message and came over in his lunch break. His opinion was to do nothing further to disturb the vault but simply re-seal and cover with a concrete slab. The skeletal remains of three people lay at the bottom, to all intents and purposes undisturbed. There were no coffin remnants to be seen, so presumably the inhabitants were buried in shrouds.

The testimony of Canon Charles Thompson to a Llandaff Diocesan Consistory Court in 1897, was that the churchyard, closed to new graves in 1855, witnessed its final interments in old graves or vaults by 1875. The path was created in 1898, at which time monuments over graves were re-sited either side of the path. For the most part, remains were removed and reburied elsewhere. One vault had been filled in, whether or not the inhabitants had been removed, but the other was left undisturbed. A puzzle worthy of speculation.

Possibly there's an answer in church records. But my best guess is this. Proper legal permission would have been needed for exhumation and re-location of remains. All it would require to do nothing would be for the family buried there to have no traceable next of kin to seek permission from. If that was one of the last churchyard burials, from less than a quarter of a century previously, the people interred would perhaps have been remembered too well for anyone willingly to bother with over-riding normal legal procedure to move the remains. No doubt there were time pressures on the builders in those days too.

Fortunately, churches are used to living with complex awkward and unanswered questions over long periods of time. They are in this regard far superior to governments, which are always re-inventing or forcing solutions on intractible situations. By tonight, the vault will have been sealed again, and within days, one of the two dozen slabs engraved with numbers replacing the old brass grave markers, will be the only reminder of the burial beneath. The only reminder, that is, apart from the historical puzzle which emerged with the opening of the vault.

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