Many aspects of life have been touched by technology and changed irrevocably, and it seems reasonable that this should also hold for aspects of death. If the life of Sake Deen Mahomed (for example) had coincided with the advent social media – being as he was such an adept networker and self publicist – he doubtless would have taken full advantage of it, with the bits and pieces of his life left online in memorium for all the world to see. Facebook provides ghost hosting for the pages of members deceased, and other online ventures aim to extend the memory of those passed with a greater richness than can be accommodated within the character limiting gravestone.
For those remembered at St Nicholas, the times in which they met their end offered only the blank stone as a canvass for their final status update, and although the term ‘carved into stone’ is used to suggest unconquerable permanence, a short stroll around the ancient ground will quickly disprove this notion as many of the inscriptions have become worn beyond recognition.
At the last head count, which took place in the late 1940’s, some 2,500 monuments were recorded, with their inscription transcribed where possible. These comprised: 623 in the Northern Extension, 1346 in the Churchyard and 556 in the Rest Garden. Many of the inscriptions were illegible, and most simply record the name of the person remembered and the date of their death, but some (around 300) offer additional information on how they passed their time before they passed away.
A quick sweep of this group offers:
- Sailors – 23
- Soldiers – 38
- Church officials – 31
- Those in Law – 12
- Those in medicine – 11
- Those in Government of Diplomatic service – 8
- Architect – 2
- Artist – 2
- Actress – 1
Just two inscriptions record the manner of passing. Both small tragedies:
Here lie all that is mortal of SOPHIA wife of CHARLES PHILLIPS died of consumption June 5 1851 aged 27 years.
To the memory of THOMAS WILSON of Taunton who was drowned while bathing in the sea in the morning of the 6th August 1785 aged 13 years
We think of the Brighton of today as a place of incomers – constant pressure on our town to squeeze in more from other places. That it has been this way many years, is attested by the number of inscriptions describing the person remembered as from another city, town or country -those whose quest for a new life by the sea ended at the hill above it.
It is hard in the end to judge how the digitally described funerarial future may compare with the mason made memorium of the present and past. The richness of detail may be a boon for historians yet to come, but the sheer scale and ubiquity of personal and social data may make the job of the investigative historian somewhat redundant. Also, there is something about the passage of time and cycle of life that requires decay – we cannot burden the future with maintaining our memory for ever, and the piece of stone in a public place, which weathers, wears and crumbles, is a good way of easing us to one side over time, and has a gentleness which a digital archive is ill suited to achieve.