Part of the ongoing Ph.D. project is to write up a series of case studies, looking at the religion of ‘ordinary’ people through their headstone inscriptions and newspaper ‘In Memoriam’ notices.
This one represents a sample of the Loughborough Echo 1918-1919. Around 148 notices were picked up (courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive – not cheap, but worth it to me). With the details (name, initial, date of death, regiment etc) I got hold of the CWGC records, which produced 96 Personal Inscriptions.
Here comes the subjective bit. I went through the inscriptions and notices, analysing where there was any form of religious content. For example, a reference to an afterlife constitutes religion. This is not an attempt to assess the nature of the theology of ordinary people. In fact, I am possibly extending the notion of ‘diffusive’ religion as perceived by Mike Snape further into the realm of the kind of ‘folk religion’ that people like Jay Winter, or a religious anthropologist like Douglas Davies, would identify.
Therefore, ‘RIP’, or ‘Rest in Peace’ becomes a religious statement. It does not imply a full-blown Christian belief, grounded in generally accepted doctrine, still less an identification with any denominational interpretation of doctrine or liturgy. It implies however a belief in something that continues, and a need to reach out to tried and tested expressions of that belief.
A lot came out of this study, but here are a few things.
- We are very far removed from the social and spiritual milieu of a hundred years ago. We may think we speak the same language, use the same metaphors, but the depth to which religion was embedded in the lives of people at the time is something we just do not understand.
- All the headstones carry the incised cross – the default religious emblem provided by the IWGC. True, families who did not want the cross had to delete it on their Final Verification form, and to request a substitute – the Star of David was readily accepted, though the Salvation Army badge was not. (That’s another story). The fact that all the families agreed to have the cross is in itself significant. You can argue I suppose that some just didn’t read the form carefully, but I think it speaks to a general desire to use a religious symbol to express remembrance and respect. We need symbols, and in 1919 those symbols were religious, and would inevitably carry religious overtones with them.
- By the way, it is wrong to think that an absence of the cross means the family were atheist or even agnostic. Plenty of Protestants objected to using the cross on religious grounds – see my study on the Moon brothers.
- The language of memorialisation at the time was peppered with religious allusions that we have no connection with. Phrases like ‘Peace, perfect peace’, ‘Not lost, but gone before’, ‘The circle of our home is broken’ may evoke some emotion in us, but in 1919 they would have been recognised as lines from well-know hymns, evoking the music and the whole message of the hymn, and the social setting of church or chapel, as well.
- Bear in mind that the vast majority of children would’ve attended Sunday School, and that although adults did not necessarily attend services, they would all have memories of learning scripture, hymns or catechism by rote.
- The interesting thing, from my point of view, was that the majority of the In Memoriam notices had no religious references. There were many references to heroism, loss, and grief, of course, and these were the majority. It also seems that a large number of verses, or lines, were borrowed from a single, or just a few sources, as though there was a ‘pattern book’ to draw on. If there was, I haven’t found it yet.
- On the other hand, when people came to write the headstone inscriptions (and granted this would have been a year or two later), they seem to have reached for their bibles, or hymn books. The balance now is in favour of religious expression – rarely chapter and verse, though the ‘Greater love hath no man…’ (John 15:13) and its variants are fairly common.
- While some of these expressions (e.g. ‘Rest in Peace’) may still occur on gravestones (though very rarely – modern inscriptions are more likely to record the attributes of the deceased – ‘much loved’ etc.
- Overall, the significance of religion in the memorialising of the WW1 dead needs to be tackled head-on. Religion, though not necessarily churchmanship, played a fundamental role in shaping the consciousness of our grandparents and great-grandparents. At times of crisis, it was to the ‘words of power’ and to the traditions of their childhood that they turned.
The photograph features the grave of Frederick Robinson (died of wounds in hospital 1918) in Loughborough Cemetery.