GRAVE POETRY: St John’s Church, Keele, North Staffordshire




Charles E S Fairey & Michael ‘Jarl’ Oakes





Grave Poetry is a timeless tradition, with many examples up and down the UK. It became especially fashionable during the Victorian Era, when there was much emphasis on death and mourning. This was further reinforced by the sad fact that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had died young, and everyone followed her perpetual sense of mourning, she adhered to for the rest of her life. Many of the funeral rules and rituals of today were created back then.


The words we find in the poetry upon Georgian and 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, but also to ask the beholder, to be mindful that they will also die, so live a good and true life.


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 eternal, 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 God, then that message should be heeded, and regarded as a guide to the living, of the journey to their ultimate abode, for them to better their form of spiritual transformation, from life, to the doorway of death.


It does not especially matter for the beholder of such graves and their poetical words, that they are 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, find Death is much more interesting and wholesome, and not as scary as others might believe. Through such perfecting, people grasp 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 John’s Church, Keele



Usually in churchyards up and down the UK, a few gravestones include an inscription with a ‘Memento Mori’ Poem. However, it is quite rare to have as many as those found here at St John’s Church, at Keele, North Staffordshire, other than the large Victorian cemeteries in UK cities. Here we find a multitude of late Georgian and Victorian graves with a message from beyond the grave, to remind the viewer, to contemplate their own death.


In Cheshire, some churchyards have a few grave poems, but here at St John’s Church at Keele, in North Staffordshire, we find around 50 plus examples visible today; although some are either obscured, or too worn to read, but luckily many have stood the test of time, to remind us that we will die.


We have selected 26 examples on graves from around the perimeter of the Church, there are many many more, and like we said above, obscured where vegetation grows over 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 more examples of such poetical ‘Memento Mori’.


We recorded this selection of St John’s Grave Poems, you will find below, to interest the reader, who may not be able to visit Keele, 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 John’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 the whole of the churchyard’s full memorial grave inscriptions. Sadly the Monumental Inscriptions which have been taken for the whole graveyard, and is available to buy from the Midland Ancestors online shop, only includes the information necessary for family historians, and not the multitude of poems their loving families left to their descendants, and for the prosperity for all those interested.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


At St John’s, we’ve recorded 26 Grave Poems on 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 our footsteps, and find each poetical inscription for themselves.


We have kept the monumental inscriptions of the graves, to just the transcription of the poems, and the name and date of the first buried, we have not transcribed the rest of the inscriptions, which record all 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.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


“The Dead Really Do Speak

And They Are Not Asleep”



*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 1


Fanny Barnett 1794:


“Here lies a careful loving Wife,

A tender nursing Mother;

A Neighbour free from Brawl and Strife,

A Pattern for all others.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 2


Thomas Lawton Junior 1826:


“I fear’d not Death, made well the Reason why

He that believes in Christ shall never die.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 3


William Cumberbatch 1879:


“Farewell dear wife my life is past,

You loved me faithfully to the last;

Grieve not for me nor sorrows make,

But love my children for my sake.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 4


Helen Carnachan 1866:


“Yet again we hope to meet her,

When the day of life is fled,

Then in heaven we hope to greet her,

Where no farewell tears are shed.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 5


Faithful Pepper 1807:


“Befool’d by sin from childhood to threescore

The yoke of Satan willingly he bore

He boldly braw’d the tenors of the Lord

Despis’d his threatening and defied his sword

But Heaven with pity his delusion saw

Awak’d him with the thunders of the Law

Shame and remorse now stung his atter’d mind

He felt his wretchedness and long’d to find

A shelter from th’ impending wrath of God

He sought and found in his Saviour’s blood

Holy and happy were his following years,

Till Death remov’d him from the vale of tears”


[This grave’s inscription is very very rare, because it includes the word ‘Satan’ within it, and that the occupant had transgressed, and had let the Devil into his life, and ignored the Law of God. But luckily, he had seen his fault, and in the end through Communion and Faith, had found the Light.]


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 6


Thomas Haywood 1790:


“Lov’d Wife farewell, upon thy silent Bier,

Thy lonely Husband sheds the frequent Tear,

Tis’ him sad For thy silence to deplore,

And now to him Life’s Pleasures are no more,

Thine was the Love that sweeten’d human Life,

Thine were the Virtues of the tender Wife,

Berest of Thee his comfort here below,

Vain earthly Joy to heal thy Father’s Woe,

To sooth to Soften & assuage his Grief

An heavenly Hope is now his best Relief,

The fiedlast Hope that thou art greatly blest,

To die Bright Regions at eternal Rest."


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 7


Sarah Viggars 1831:


“Weep not for me, my dearest friends,

Weep for your Follies past;

And when this life uncertain ends,

You’ll reap great Joy at last.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 8


Stephen Cooper 1802:


“To a faithful Wife a tender Love to bore,

His Children dear had his paternal Care;

Courteous to all he was, and from his Store

By honest Dealing got, he fed, the Poor.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 9


William Brayford 1796:


“Keep Death and Judgment always in your Eye;

None are fit to live, who are not fit to die:

Make use of present Time, because you must

Take up your Lodging shortly in the Dust.

Tis dreadful to behold the setting Sun,

And Night approaching ere your Work be done.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 10


Samuel Cooper 1802:


“Sweet innocency’s form lies here,

Lamented by its Parents dear:

Who hope at Last, in endless Joy,

To Meet again their lovely Boy.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 11


William Cooper 1803:


“The blooming Flow’r in Emblem shows

Of mortal Man’s Decay:

Man like a Flow’r no sooner blows,

But fades and dies away.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 12


Jane Downing 1789:


“The Pains of Child-bed overpower’d me,

I did submit to Death my Life you see,

As my Creator through his heav’nly Love,

Took me to rest with blessed Saints above."


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 13


Thomas Beech 1834:


“My Friends so dear,

pray weep no more,

Lest God should on you


Though I was young,

the Lord was strong,

And quickly cut me down.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 14


Elizabeth Dean 1819:


“God bless one left with length of Days,

On Earth to live God’s name to Praise.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 15


John Gretton 1833:


“Let thy Fountain be blessed and rejoice

With the Wife of thy youth,

For the ways of Man are before the

Eyes of the Lord and he pondereth

All his goings.”


Proverbs 5th C[hapter] 18th + 21st V[erse]


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 16


Jacob Salter 1872:







*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 17


Richard Dean 1769:


“A loving pair lie sleeping here,

Walk’d with the Lord in holy fear;

When Christ, shall come thy shall arise,

And Join the Triumph of the Skies.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 18


Margaret Pepper 1797:


“The best of wives, the ground incloseth here,

Loving to her husband and children dear;

Great was their loss for her eternal gain,

Yet hopes in Christ, that they shall meet again.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 19


James Hambleton 1802:


“Walk softly by and cast an Eye,

How the Grass doth on us grow,

Consider Friend your life must end:

With us you must lie low.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 20


Samuel Hambleton 1807:


“The best of Husbands the Grave inclosed here,

Faithful and just to his Wife and Friends dear,

Great was my loss for his eternal gain:

But hope in Heaven we shall meet again;

Plain dealings was his Heart’s delight,

Till Soul from Body took its flight,

Therefore dear Wife mourn no more

I am not lost but gone before.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 21


Sarah Colclough 1806:


“Husband Farewell my Life is Past,

I loved you while it did last,

Think on my Children for my Sake,

And ever on them pity take.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 22


Samuel Burgin 1785:


“Christ was our guide on Earth

And death to us was gain:

Because in him we put our trust,

Salvation to Obtain.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 23


Mary Goodall 1800:


“Mourn not dear Friends, tho’ we did go,

We’ve paid the Debt you all do owe,

In early Years God thro’ his Love,

Took us to rest with Saints above.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 24


Samuel Eardley 1834:


“All conquering Death for me did call

When Life was well nigh spent,

God gave me grace may time retrace,

To believe, and repent.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 25


Hannah Berks 1798:


“Weep not for me, my parents dear,

I am not dead, but sleeping here,

My marriage bed lies in the dust,

Till Christ doth come to raise the lost.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Grave No. 26


George Birks 1863:


“Death and the grave must yield their dead

To Christ who is the living head

The trump shall sound the saints shall rise

To meet his saviour in the skies.”


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


An Example of St John’s Church’s Grave Poetry

(Grave No. 12: Jane Downing who died 30th September 1789, aged 39 Years)


Locations of Selected Grave Poetry at

St John’s Church, Keele, North Staffordshire

This Google Maps Satellite Imagery has been reproduced under their fair usage policy.

“Imagery © 2023 Bluesky, CNES / Airbus, Getmapping plc, Infotera Ltd & Bluesky, Maxar Technologies, Map data ©2023 Google (” 


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