Five hundred years ago there were no tombs in your graveyard. Bodies were under its ground but the souls that had lived in them were remembered at the alter in church. Sometimes after service the churchyard was used for sports. On feast days churchwardens provided ale from the church ale house. In many old towns and villages there is an inn overlooking the churchyard, just as the Swan does at Wantage. It is probably a survival of the church ale house.
But after the Reformation people seem to have preferred to commemorate themselves in stone. The rich had sculptured memorials inside the church, the less rich headstones in the churchyard and the poor had to be content with men’s memory.
Many old customs survive connected with churchyards. No parson, for instance, can cut down the trees in his churchyards unless they are required for the repair of the chancel; and offending rectors can be heavily fined – and once they could be excommunicated. Then it is interesting to see how the old belief that the Devil haunted the north side of the church survived until the 19th century; in few old churchyards are there even any eighteenth-century tombs on the north side of the church and only if the village happened to be on the north side was the north door used.
From Tennis Whites and Teacakes, John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games, London 2007.
This is from an article by John Betjeman, from an article on ‘Country Churchyards’, published in May 1953 in his diocesan newsletter. Today is the beginning of Cherishing Churchyards Week, organized by Caring for God’s Acre, a small Herefordshire charity that supports the conservation of burial grounds. I wish good weather and good cheer to all the volunteers involved, and all the gardeners who’ll be spending time this weekend caring for a churchyard.