Why I Take Pictures of Tombstones
by Elisabeth Allen
I really do take pictures of tombstones. I remember, when I was a little girl, that one of the shortcuts from my house to the highstreet was through a graveyard. It was tucked behind one of the Victorian churches in the town. It was quite Victorian itself – surrounded by tall walls and yew trees. A winding path led from one side to the other. It was always cool and dim and smelt sweet and sticky because of the fallen needles from the yew trees that were crushed and trodden underfoot. Slivers of sunshine peeped between the branches of the trees and fell in bright, golden shafts across the stone path. It was beautiful and peaceful and solemn. I wasn’t frightened at the thought of being surrounded by the bones of many generations. I was fascinated by the names and dates that were engraved on every tombstone. I was shorter than most of the tombstones when I realised that the names and dates, coupled with the obituaries, were stories. Recently, in a cathedral, I discovered another tombstone and another story. I discovered a legacy.
The obituary reads:
Brought up from her earliest childhood in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, she carried with her into all the duties of after life the principles of religion, and exemplified their holy influences in the constant and faithful discharge of every Christian obligation. The sweetness of her temper and her unassuming virtues ensured the esteem of all who knew her, while her watchful solicitude for their happiness and welfare commanded the ardent affection of her devoted husband and children. The evening of her life, as if to try and perfect her Christian character, was clouded with much suffering, which she sustained with meek submission to the Divine will; and with humble but firm trust in her redeemer she calmly resigned her spirit to the safe keeping of her Heavenly Father on the 18th day of January 1849, and in the 59th year of her age.
Anne Eleanor Moore-Stevens isn’t a name that’s known or renouned. Apparently she was born in 1790 in Eton. She was married in 1817 when she was 27. She had three children – one boy called John Curzon and two girls called Anne Eleanor and Louisa Julia. She was a vicar’s wife and later, when her husband was promoted within the Church of England, an archdeacon’s wife.
I’m reminded of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles books, especially The Warden and Barchester Towers, which I’ve read and watched for years. The obituary says so much more and, although the choice of words is sentimental and Victorian and celebrates ideas that aren’t fashionable now (like “religion” and “obligation” as well as “virtue”), I think it’s inspiring. Anne Eleanor Moore-Stevens, like most of us, was an ordinary woman living an ordinary life. If she was everything her tombstone says she was then her legacy is still living. That’s guaranteed. And, for good measure, it’s written in stone.
It makes me pause and wonder what sort of legacy I’m creating, moment by moment, now. Would it, if was written in stone, be an inspiration one-hundred and sixty-three years later? I’d like to meet Anne Eleanor Moore-Stevens and ask her what her characters and life were REALLY like and what her secret was – her secret for leaving a legacy that was worth writing in stone.
That’s not a possibility, so I’ll treasure the example that she is today, reminded of her existence by a picture of a tombstone. The example in words is living. And that’s why I take pictures of tombstones.