GRAVE POETRY: St Helen’s Church, Witton, Northwich, Cheshire


GRAVE POETRY


Grave Poetry is a timeless tradition, with many examples up and down the country, but it became especially fashionable during the Victorian Era, when there was much emphasis on death and mourning, especially because Queen Victoria lost her young husband, Prince Albert, and was in a perpetual state of mourning for the rest of her life. The whole country seemed to be in mourning, and much was written about the rules and modes of such.

The words we find in poems upon Victorian grave stones, ask the viewer to contemplate their own mortality, and are especially religious, pleading with the reader to take notice of God, and to make peace with Him.

Some might say that the dead are talking to us from beyond the grave, wishing us to take heed of their immortal monumental words, for our time shall come, and we have no option but to abide.

Grave stones are meant to be immortal markers of the resting dead, to last forever, as a shrine for those who cared for the occupant(s), to mourn their loved ones, and place tokens of their love and affection at the immortal stone altar, and to contemplate their own death for as long as they live, and their descendants to do likewise, as their loved ones, one day they hope, will do the same for them.

In this way the inscriptions are really immortal words, and if they include a message, a teaching, for those yet to meet their Creator, then that message should be heeded, and regarded as a guide to the living, of the journey to their deathly abode, for them to better their form of spiritual transition, from life to the doorway of death.

It does not especially matter for the viewer of such, if not a relative, to care for the life of the grave’s occupant(s), or those they have left behind, but that or those occupant(s), care or cares that you heed their words, from beyond the veil of death.

“Even in Death
The Dead Show Their Care
For The Living”

These grave poems can be classed under the term ‘Memento Mori’.

Since the Medieval period, there has been a tradition of ‘Memento Mori’, which is a phrase which means ‘remember death’, and was a medieval theory to teach the living that they should reflect upon mortality, and consider the vanity of the earthly abode, and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. There are many phrases, images and symbols related to death, which we now include under the ‘Memento Mori’ banner.

People who come to realise the importance of this act of dying through perfecting their character, and ultimately knowing themselves, and understanding the detachment from this life, and understanding the virtue of preparing themselves for the afterlife. As well as grasping the immortality of their own soul, and its salvation and thus its place within the spiritual landscape. Such as the three realms, which exist in many religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, and other world belief systems, as the Earth, Heaven and Hell; view death more as a friend than a foe.

Such phrases as “Remember Man that you are dust and unto the dust you shall return”, “Remember that thou shalt die, and “Prepare to meet thy God”, remind us of the fragility of life, and that we must try and learn how we should prepare ourselves for the hereafter, and the transition from a physical realm to a spiritual realm, before it is too late.

The most famous Memento Mori phrase or be it a rhyme is:-

“Ring a ring a roses,
A pocket full of posies
A-tish-oo, a-tish-oo
We all fall down”


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The Grave Poetry at St Helen’s Church, Northwich


Usually in churchyards up and down the country, a number of gravestones include an inscription with a ‘Memento Mori’ Poem. However, it is quite rare to have as many as those found at St Helen’s Church, at Witton in Northwich, Cheshire, other than the large Victorian cemeteries in British cities. Here we find multiple Victorian graves with a message from beyond the grave, to remind the viewer, to contemplate death.

In Cheshire, some churchyards have a few grave poems, but here at St Helen’s we find well over 50 examples visible today; although some are either obscured, or too worn to read, but many which have stood the test of time, to remind us that we will die.

I have selected around 34 examples on 29 graves from around the perimeter of the Church, there are quite a few more, further away, and like I said above, obscured when used as grass kerbs to the north of the church, and obscured with tarmac over the paths made from gravestones, the grass and soil covers them, or they are too worn to be read.

If all the graves were uncovered in the churchyard, and were to be recorded, it is very likely there will be hundreds of examples of such poetical ‘Memento Mori’, a rare feature of a Cheshire graveyard.

I recorded this selection of St Helen’s Grave Poems, you will find below, to interest the reader, who may not be able to visit Northwich, or who may not have time to search them out, for your interest, but also to remind us that death is something not to fear, and something which is paramount to prepare for in life.

Far too many folk fear death, and tend to shy away from it, although it is an inevitable part of life, so in that way, these poems may help those who are interested, either from a spiritual, poetical or even historical sense, to contemplate death, and prepare. That reason is why these examples existed in the first place.

It may also make a nice project for parishioners of St Helen’s, or a local history group, or a local poetry group, or even a local children’s group, to record all the examples of Grave Poetry here, so that just like the stone grave markers were meant to be immortal shrines, their poetry will act as an immortal reminder to reflect upon and contemplate death. It may also make a great book for those not too shy, to read, what was left by those now beyond the grave.

Another project which could be considered is the recording of all the monumental inscriptions in St Helen’s graveyard, not just for the poetry, but to help people research their family histories. Many churches in Cheshire, and in the whole of the UK, have dedicated people who record every grave, its inscription, and its exact location, and produce Monumental Inscription books, for the use of those tracing their family history. Sadly this hasn’t been done for St Helen’s yet, but it would be a time consuming and difficult task, but a very rewarding project for those who wish to trace their ancestors.

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At St Helen’s I recorded 34 Grave Poems on 29 Gravestones, and have numbered them and placed their locations upon a Google Satellite Image of the Churchyard, see below, so that anybody who reads this article, if they so wish to, are able to follow in my footsteps, and find each poetical inscription for themselves.

I have kept the monumental inscriptions of the graves, to just the transcription of the poems, I have not transcribed the rest of the inscriptions, which record the occupants of the graves, and their date of death, and/or burial, etc, because this article deals with the poetical message, and to include the rest of the information, would probably bore the reader. And essentially, the poems are the important message to those, who are not descendants of those in the graves.

It also takes some of the personal emphasis away from the emotions of the reader, and thereby keeps the heart concentrating upon their messages, and not the person at rest, so is much more personal to the reader’s heart generally, as well as acting as an individual teaching, so that each person who reads the verses, may reflect upon their meaning and message.

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“So, Now, My Dear Living Reader,
We Must Now Contemplate Death,
Through The Immortal Poetry of the Dead”


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Grave No. 1

“A LOVING WIFE, A MOTHER DEAR,
A FAITHFUL FRIEND LIES BURIED HERE;
SHE PARTED WITH A WORLD OF PAIN,
SHE ONLY DIED TO LIVE AGAIN.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Grave No. 2

“FATHER IN THY GRACIOUS KEEPING
LEAVE WE NOW THY SERVANTS SLEEPING.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Grave No. 3

“Farewell vain World I’ve had enough of thee,
And now am Careless a what thou thinkest of me:
What thou’s seen ill in me take care to shun,
And look at Home enough there’s to be done.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *
Grave No. 4

“Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.”

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Grave No. 5

“Billited by Death here I remain
When the Trumpet doth sound
Ile rise and march again.”

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Grave No. 6

“Dear wife when this my grave you see,
Remember you must follow me;
Your peace with God then strive to make
And have my Children for my sake.
Farewell dear wife, and children dear,
I am not dead, but sleeping here;
But when Christ comes I hope to have
A joyful rising from the grave.”

“She is gon and the grave has received her
Twas Jesus that called her away;
She is gon and the Lord hath redeemed her
From night to the splendour of day.”

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Grave No. 7

“WEEP NOT FOR ME MY HUSBAND DEAR,
I AM NOT DEAD BUT SLEEPING HERE:
MY END YOU KNEW MY GRAVE TO SEE,
PREPARE IN TIME TO FOLLOW ME.”

“A LIGHT IS FROM OUR HOUSEHOLD GONE
A VOICE WE LOVED IS STILLED,
A PLACE IS VACANT AT OUR HEARTH
WHICH NEVER CAN BE FILLED.”

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Grave No. 8

“UPON WHOSE SOUL SWEET JESUS HAVE MERCY.”

“RAISE NO VAIN SCULPTURE O’ER MY GRAVE
A PLAIN SIMILE STONE IS ALL I CRAVE
TO SHOW BENEATH A SINNER LIES
WHO DIED IN HOPES AGAIN TO RISE
THROUGH CHRIST ALONE TO BE FORGIVEN
AND FITTED FOR THE JOYS OF HEAVEN
R.I.P.”

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Grave No. 9

“O TENDER HEART AND TRUE OUR LONG LAST VIGIL KEPT,
WE WEEP AND MOURN FOR YOU, NOR BLAME US, JESUS WEPT,
BUT SOON AT BREAK OF DAY, HIS CALM ALMIGHTY VOICE,
STRONGER THAN DEATH, SHALL SAY, AWAKE, ARISE, REJOICE.”

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Grave No. 10

“SHE HAS GONE AND THE LORD HAS RECEIVED HER,
T’WAS JESUS THAT CALLED HER AWAY;
SHE HAS GONE AND THE LORD HAS REDEEMED HER
FROM NIGHT TO THE SPLENDOUR OF DAY.”

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Grave No. 11

“Weep not for us, Brethren dear,
We are not dead, but sleeping here,
Our lives are past, by this you see,
Prepare your selves to follow us,
Respected and Lamented.”

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Grave No. 12

“Her longwishing head is at rest,
Its thinking and waking are o’er,
Her quiet immovable heart,
Is heav’d by affliction no more.”

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Grave No. 13

“A living Husband, A companion dear,
A faithful Friend I have lies here;
Who lived in love and died in peace,
O that his joys may never cease.”

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Grave No. 14

“Dear Husband now my life is past,
Your faithful lov’d me to the last;
Grieve not for me but pity take,
On my poor Children for my sake.”

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Grave No. 15

“The angel of the Lord encompeth round about
them that fear him, and delivereth them.”

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Grave No. 16

“How sudden and how awful was the stroke,
By which the slender thread of life was broke.”

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Grave No. 17

“Refrain you tears, and weep no more,
Because your child is gone before;
He lived in love, in peace he died,
His life was craved, but God denied.”

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Grave No. 18

“Yet shall we now to let thee go,
Or Fondly wish they stay below,
Shall we regret that life’s short day,
With thee so swiftly pass’d away,
No lovely Child escape to rest,
Where thou shall be for ever blest.”

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Grave No. 19

“If you’re disposed to weep for Sinner’s dead,
About this Infant trouble not your Head;
Reserve your Grief for one of riper Years;
She that hath never sinn’d can wast no Tears.”

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Grave No. 20

“Ye Virgins with Sorrow approach to my Shrine,
For all your gay Beauty will soon be as mine,
Then think on your Souls and contemplate with Joy
On the Beauties that blown in the Regions on high.”

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Grave No. 21

“If Thou should’st call me to resign,
What must I prize it ne’er was mine;
I only yield Thee what is Thine;
Thy will be done.”

“Oh’ dearest parents you are gone
To dwell with Christ above;
And we, your Children, left alone
To mourne for those we loved.”

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Grave No. 22

“He is not dead but Sleepeth,
He will rise again triumphant;
At the last day,
He by himself hath sworn,
I on his oath depend;
I shall on eagle’s wings up borne
To Heaven ascend;
I shall behold his face,
I shall his power adore,
And sing the wonders of his grace,
For evermore.”

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Grave No. 23

“Dear husband now my life is past,
Your faithful lov’d me to the last;
My debt is paid, my Sole you see,
Prepare yourselves to follow me.”

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Grave No. 24

“Hou sudden and hou awful was the stroke,
By which the slender thread of life was broke;
Reader reflect! What happened unto me,
For aught thou know’st may happen unto thee.”

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Grave No. 25

“Therefore be ye also read’r for in
Such an hour as ye think not the
Son of man cometh,”

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Grave No. 26

“SEEK YE THE LORD, WHILE HE MAY FOUND:
CALL YE UPON HIM WHILE HE IS NEAR.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Grave No. 27

“Blooming and full of life was she,
When summoned from our side;
Her sudden death calls us to be,
Prepared from earth to glide.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Grave No. 28

“HER TOILS ARE PAST, HER WORK IS DONE
AND SHE IS FULLY BLEST;
SHE’S FOUGHT THE FIGHT, THE VICTORY WON
AND ENTER’D INTO REST.”

“THINK NOT I DEAD TO SEE MY SPIRIT FLY
THROUGH THE DARK GATES OF FELL MORTALITY;
DEATH HAS NO TERRORS WHEN THE LIFE IS TRUE:
“TIS LIVING ILL THAT MAKES US FEAR TO DIE.””

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Grave No. 29

“FATHER I WILL THAT THEY ALSO
WHOM THAT HAST GIVEN ME, BE WITH ME WHERE
I AM, THAT THEY MAY BEHOLD MY GLORY, WHICH
THOU HAS GIVEN ME; ST JOHN CHAP 17 VERSE 24.”

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I will now leave you, dear reader, with a Memento Mori verse from a 17th Century gold and black enamel Mourning Ring, which was found by my friend, Michael Farrington, near to Middlewich:-


 "Death is the waye to Life"

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An Example of St Helen’s Church’s Grave Poetry
(Grave No. 6: Joseph Standley who died 3rd December 1868, aged 67 Years)


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Locations of Selected Grave Poetry at
St Helen’s Church, Witton, Northwich, Cheshire


This Google Maps Satellite Imagery has been reproduced under their fair usage policy. “Imagery © 2019 Bluesky, DigitalGlobe, Getmapping plc, Infotera Ltd & Bluesky, Map data ©2019 Google (https://www.google.co.uk/maps)”


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Recommended Links:

My friend Amanda Norman’s ‘Headstone Symbols Website’ is well worth a visit, for all things Grave! As well as an article about the ‘Memento Mori Verses’ at Keele Church in Staffordshire, which I recommended her to visit, please see:-

Headstone Symbols and Meanings @ http://headstonesymbols.co.uk/



Also I recommend the two websites about St Helen’s Church at Witton in Northwich:-

St Helen’s Northwich Website @ https://www.achurchnearyou.com/church/6775/

St Helen Witton Church, Northwich Wikipedia Entry @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Helen_Witton_Church,_Northwich


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Acknowledgements:

With Special Thanks to:-

  • My friends Michael ‘Jarl’ Oakes & Stephen Simpson, who accompanied me when visiting St Helen’s Church at Northwich, as part of ‘Heritage Open Days’, on Saturday 21st September 2019.

  • Guides at St Helen’s Church at Northwich, who showed us around the Church, and who showed interest in my Grave Poem search and recording.


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