The tombs of the great and good fascinate many people. They are often superb works of art in their own right and preserve a remarkable record of the people, customs and costumes of their day. While paintings and sketches may give us textures and colours, it is not until you see a three-dimensional representation that the flowing fabrics of the ladies and the robes and armour of the gentlemen that you realise the full picture.
As you walk around churches and burial grounds, there are usually only names and dates inscribed on headstones and memorials, sometimes an intriguing epitaph or a snapshot of family life through the names of spouses, children and grandchildren. The vast monuments to the lords and ladies of the land not only put a face and figure to those they commemorate, but somehow also serve to remind us of the uncommemorated dead, those buried with no more than a shroud and no stone to mark where they rest.
They also remind us that these were people, just like us, who lived, laughed, wept and loved. They passed through the world as we all do, leaving it as we all must…and that is not a sad or scary thing, but a simple fact of life.
What seems to scare people most is the risk of oblivion, both the feared oblivion of an after where they are not and the obliviousness of those who come after, forgetting that person had ever lived. In some ways, I find these monuments to be a sad and silent witness to the ego’s need to be remembered. They are also a political testament to achievement and position that stand as silent buttresses to the family name through its generations. And perhaps, too, some are simply expressions of the love and grief of those left behind.
Whatever the reason behind their creation, the monuments which may once have been painted in the colours of life, seem to give the lie to the permanence of death, suggesting that it is not the end of a story, but only the beginning.
John predeceased his father, dying young in 1625. His epitaph reads:
O hurrying traveller, grudge not to check thy step. See who I was and ponder well. My name was John Fermor, the eldest son of his parents and the first hope of the House of Fermor. I was in the flower of youth, my cheeks were bright and blooming, and having just married a wife I was full of joy.
Scarcely had I begun my course when suddenly cruel Death bade me halt and stopped the journey I had started. I pleaded my strength and wealth and my flower of youth, my wife’s tears and my father’s sad prayers. But my words fell upon deaf ears: inflexible Death drew his weapon and laid me low with a cruel wound.
But why speak I of myself? So many sons lie here buried in the earth, but their spirit ascends to the stars. While thou readest this, pity my fate and say a propitious prayer. My present fate may soon be yours.