“Teaching marble to lie”: Remembering the dead in early modern monuments

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten”. Ecclesiastes 9:5

How will we be remembered we die? Will we be remembered at all? These are questions which occupied minds in early modern England just as much as now. Wealthy men and women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were very concerned about how they would go down to posterity. Although most of them probably believed in a Christian afterlife, they also hoped to prove the above Ecclesiastes verse wrong by ensuring that their memory lived on after death, thus ensuring an earthly quasi-immortality. This could be achieved most obviously through fame as a statesman, soldier or scholar, but one could also hope to secure remembrance via charitable endowments, building and portraiture, as well as through one’s offspring.

During the Middle Ages, paying for the singing of masses had been used by wealthy people as a means of shortening a soul’s stay in Purgatory, and also as a way of remembering and honouring their deceased kin. In post-Reformation England, however, paying for masses was no longer an option, so people had to venerate their family in more tangible ways. Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) listed the things which well-off people did in the 16th and 17th centuries to commemorate their memory and the memory of their kin. They would dedicate “tombstones and monuments…epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries” and would “omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory”.

Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall, a prominent 18th century politician © Caecilia Dance
Memorial to Charles Wolfran Cornwall,
a prominent 18th century politician. © Caecilia Dance
Late 16th century monument in York Minster showing the deceased man at his prayers © Allan Harris
Late 16th century monument in York Minster showing the deceased man at his prayers. © Allan Harris












One notable development in post-Reformation England was the enormous proliferation of funerary monuments both inside and outside churches. Medieval kings and queens had, it is true, merited elaborate tombs, and some nobles and wealthy merchants had also built themselves funerary monuments, but it was really only in the 16th century that the building of monuments and memorial inscriptions great and small took off, cluttering up England’s churches in the attempt to obtain a lasting remembrance on Earth.

Building a memorial for oneself or a family member was, as well as a means of remembering the dead, a sign of piety and worldly status. Only the gentry and wealthy merchants had the money and the social standing necessary to go about erecting memorials in church. The antiquary John Weever wrote that “every man…desires a perpetuity after death, by these monuments”, and a Jacobean antiquary remarked that a man could “perpetuate the reverend memory of his honourable parents, ancestors, and much beloved friends departed” by building them funerary monuments.

It has been estimated that between 1530 and 1600, around five thousand carved stone monuments were set up in churches across England; there were also innumerable cheaper panels of engraved stone, brass or wood for those who were not quite important or wealthy enough to merit the elaborate stone memorials. In the later 17th and 18th centuries, funerary sculpture grew ever more ambitious, featuring portrait medallions, pictorial reliefs and dramatic figural groupings.  One Jacobean antiquary described the “lively counterfeiting resemblance[s], effigies [and] pyramids” with which people decorated their memorials. A common “counterfeiting resemblance” seen on 16th and 17th century monuments is the depiction of the dead and their family, with children dutifully kneeling in a row at the bottom of the monument.
The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey. Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children. © Richard Croft
The Denny Monument at Waltham Abbey. Sir and Lady Denny with their 10 children. ©Richard Croft
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of Romsey, also depicting their "fower sonns" © Caecilia Dance
A memorial to John and Grissell St Barbe of Romsey, also depicting their “fower sonns”. © Caecilia Dance












Post-Reformation memorial inscriptions frequently contained a moral message, though it was less often a memento mori than a stern exhortation to lead a virtuous life. One 17th century Berkshire monument, after enumerating the qualities of the various members of the Yate family, ended with “Reader, depart, imitate”. Reading about the supposed merits of the deceased was intended to edify the onlooker and encourage them to better behaviour. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1502-75) admitted that the eulogistic epitaph which he wrote for his own tomb had less to do with his actual merits than a desire to make readers aspire to the virtues attributed to him.

Not everyone approved of this: Alexander Pope had no time for such ideas and condemned much of what was written didactically on funerary monuments as “sepulchral lies” (his own epitaph read “[Here] lies one who ne’er cared, and still cares not a pin/ What they said, or may say, of the mortal within”). The poet Matthew Prior wrote in 1714 of memorial inscriptions, “Yet credit but lightly what more may be said/ For we flatter ourselves and teach marble to lie”.

“Sepulchral lies” or not, the past few centuries have bequeathed us a rich collection of funerary monuments in churches across the country, both large and small. On a recent trip to Winchester Cathedral and the nearby Romsey Abbey I was able to see many excellent examples of early modern memorial inscriptions, ranging from the dull to the witty, from the pompous to the pithy.

Some were poignant testimonies of the unpredictability of life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I found many memorials dedicated to women who died in childbirth, sometimes just a year after getting married, along with inscriptions which reveal a high rate of infant and child mortality.

Near this place are interred
the remains of Mrs Ann Moody:
She Died January 14th 1780,
Aged 19 Years;
Also her infant Son,
aged 9 Weeks.
Look on this Monument,
Ye Gay and Careless,
think of its date,
and boast no more of to-morrow.

                       *    *    *

In Memory of Mary the Wife of John May
who died the 29th November 1781.
Also in Memory of all her children
Mary died in her Infancy
Ann died the 1st of May 1787 aged 17 Years
Mary died in June the same Year aged 11 Years
and Elizabeth died the 20th August 1791 aged 18 Years.

“If e’er the offspring of thy virtuous love bloom’d to thy wish, or to thy soul was Dear, this plaintive Marble asks thee for a tear”. 

Although one always expects to find a certain amount of eulogising on the larger memorials, I was surprised by the very secular character of several inscriptions. They seemed more fit for the description of a heroine in an 18th century sentimental novel than for the remembrance of a dead lady, however highborn she might have been. Take, for instance, the memorial inscriptions for Frances Viscount Palmerston and Elizabeth Montagu:

In Memory of Frances Palmerston:

Her Sense was Strong her Judgement accurate,
Her Wit engaging and her Taste refined,
While the Elegance of her Form,
The Graces of her Manners,
And the natural Propriety
That ever accompanied her Words and Actions,
Made her Virtues doubly attractive,
And taught her equally to command
Respect and Love.

*    *    *

Elizabeth Montagu
Daughter of Matthew Robinson Esquire
who possessing the united advantages
of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation and Riches
and employing her talents more uniformly
for the benefit of Mankind
might justly be deem’d an ornament
to her Sex, and Country.

Other epitaphs were simple yet touching; a welcome respite from the monuments which listed every last detail of a distinguished career, or eulogised the apparently endless Christian virtues of the dead. Romsey Abbey had an unusual memorial inscription commissioned by someone for a deceased family servant, “Honest Caspar”, and Winchester Cathedral featured a plaque dedicated to a charitable physician:


Whose Remains are near
this Place deposited under a black Marble Slab.
His many good Qualities, and
long and faithful Service in the Family he lived,
during Sixty Years,
Justly claim this Act of grateful remembrance
from his surviving Master
as also hereby to commemorate
to the rising Generation,
in his Line of Life, to
imitate his worthy Example
He dyed the 26th May 1785
Aged 72 Years.

*    *    *

To the Memory of William Widmore,
He was (which is most rare)
A friend without guile,
An Apothecary without Ostentation.
His extensive Charity in his profession
Entitles him to be call’d
The Physician of the Poor.
Let other inscriptions boast
Honours, Pedigree, and Riches,
Here lies an honest Englishman.
Who died the 19th Day of June 1756

Although unusual in the early modern period, witty epitaphs and inscriptions were not unheard of. A famous example is the epitaph of the judge John Strange (1696-1754), which reads “Here lies an honest lawyer – that is Strange”. I found a humorous inscription on a gravestone just outside Winchester Cathedral, erected in memory of Thomas Thetcher, a young soldier who died of a fever contracted by drinking small beer on a hot day:

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.

Thomas Thetcher's gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. © Supertechguy
Thomas Thetcher’s gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. ©Supertechguy
Further Reading
Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (2009)
Nigel Saul, English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (2011)
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (2008)
Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009)


What did people die of in the past?

Slate magazine has created an ‘Interactive Game of Death’ in which you can find out what you might have died of had you been living at various points from 1647 to the present. It churns through historical English and American death records in order to come up with a list of the ailments and accidents which killed people in any one year. It’s a fun way to spend ten minutes, but more than that, it allows us an interesting glimpse into the shifting patterns of death and disease over the last three and a half centuries.
Results for the year 1647, from Slate magazine's 'Interactive Game of Death'
Results for the year 1647, from Slate magazine’s ‘Interactive Game of Death’

I’ve spent some time having a look at the results and have pieced together some interesting patterns. Sometimes these are difficult to explain, not least because of the bewildering variety of medical terms which confront the historian. There are some terms which are impossible to translate into modern medical terminology, and others, such as ‘fever’, are frustratingly vague. There are, however, some indications that socioeconomic developments could influence the spread of new diseases or contribute to the disappearance of old ones, as was the case with the rise of the industrialised city in 19th century Europe and North America. I have divided the patterns of mortality into four sections; seemingly ‘harmless’ killers, unusual or vague ailments, the rise of the industrialised city, and death in the 20th century.

‘Harmless’ killers

Almost all of the diseases and ailments on the older historical death records can be treated today if caught in time. Despite this, some of their names still arouse a sense of dread. So terrible was their hold on the popular imagination at the time, that epidemics such as the Black Death and the Spanish Flu at once produce mental images of mass graves and deserted towns (the Black Death) and desperate parents all over the world unable to do anything for their previously healthy teenage children (Spanish Flu). We have not forgotten that these were deadly diseases.

It is not so with everything on the historical death records. Particularly in the older, pre-1800 records, there are many ailments which we would never associate with death. At first it seems odd to see toothache and worms listed as causes of death. Today, toothache is a painful nuisance, but no-one in the developed world should die from it if they have access to a doctor. We sometimes fail to appreciate that in an age before antibiotics and satisfactory hygiene (from a modern medical perspective), everyday complaints could turn fatal. Toothache was a routine ailment for almost everyone in pre-modern Europe. The best that could be done to combat it was getting some dodgy barber-surgeon to pull the offending tooth out with a pair of pliers. The worst consequence was death by septicaemia if the infection seeped into the blood.

Tooth extraction in the early 19th century
Tooth extraction in the early 19th century
Advertisement for cocaine tooth drops. New York, 1885
Advertisement for cocaine tooth drops. New York, 1885











Other illnesses and ailments listed in historical death records which are no longer linked with death in the popular imagination include indigestion, kidney stones, dysentery, worms, and teething. Teething is listed as a cause of death because the mercury used in many teething corals slowly poisoned the baby. Dysentery (then called the flux or the bloody flux, now better known as a form of gastroenteritis) was a a particular problem in places such as military camps. The overcrowding and particularly poor hygiene meant that contagion spread easily .

Unusual and vague ailments

‘Plague’, a catch-all term for bubonic or pneumonic plague, was one of the most feared killers in the medieval world. It was still endemic at the time of the earliest death record here (the London Bill of Mortality for 1647), yet in England, deaths from plague were almost unheard of after the Great Plague of London in 1665. It’s not entirely clear why it virtually disappeared from the records, but it did, putting an end to many centuries of terror of the ‘plague’ – only for new diseases to appear and terrify future generations with devastating epidemics.

Plague victims being carted away for burial. London, 1665
Plague victims being carted away for burial. London, 1665

Often in the pre-1800 records the causes of death are not unusual per se, but they are recorded in peculiar ways. For example, sometimes euphenisms were used to cover up deaths from sensual over-indulgence. Thus in 1801, someone in Porstmouth, New Haven, died of ‘debauchery’; probably what is meant is venereal disease. In 1647, a Londoner died of ‘surfet’ that is, vomiting from over-eating. Other causes of death are not just given unusual names, but would be deemed impossible now, as with the Londoner who is recorded as having died of grief in 1647. It’s easy enough to imagine how such a death record might have come into being. The authorities come round to the house to find out the cause of death; no one knows what it was, but the victim’s neighbour asserts that Tom or Mary has been prostrate with grief since their son died a year ago. The authorities promptly write ‘grief’ as the cause of death before moving on to the next person on the list. Thus, the record of ‘grief’ as a cause of death is not necessarily medical ignorance, though it raises a smile now.

One of the most vague terms to appear in historical death records, alongside ague (fever) and plague, is ‘brain fever’, which we find in English and North American death records in the 19th century. Retrospective diagnosis is always risky, but historians now speculate that brain fever may have been viral encephalitis. At any rate, its very vagueness made it a notoriously common plot device for 19th century novelists. Sometimes it feels as if it’s almost impossible to read a book by a Victorian author in which no character develops brain fever. Brain fever was a very useful literary device. It was relatively easy to introduce, as it tended only to be the reaction to a severe emotional shock, perhaps combined with having spent too long in the rain. It was an exciting disease, being always potentially fatal with a ‘crisis point’ to induce thrills in the reader, yet it was not contagious, so there was no danger of having to kill off any other characters. The high delirium into which it threw a character for several weeks meant that important secrets could be betrayed by the raving patient, which would introduce new intrigues and move the plot forward. To name only a few literary victims, Pip in Great Expectations, Cathy in Wuthering Heights and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility all suffer brain fever.


The rise of the industrialised city


Water supply was never particularly clean or reliable in cities, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the huge expansion of increasingly industrialised cities in Europe and North America, the problem of finding clean water became more acute than ever. The inadequate sewage system of the typical newly- industrialised city, together with the crowded and unsanitary living conditions, led to the rise of the water-borne diseases which would become terrifying killers until the 20th century, most notably cholera and typhoid fever. Aside from the poor water supply, the overcrowded, unhygienic conditions of the slums and tenements made contagious diseases such as diptheria, scarlet fever and typhus all too common. In the 19th century, American and British social reformers started drawing attention to slum areas, with the result that they were gradually cleared up by the authorities.
A Glaswegian slum in 1871. Cramped conditions and a conspicuous lack of adequate sewage and water supply systems ensured that such areas were rife with diseases such as cholera, typhus and typhoid fever
A Glaswegian slum in 1871. Cramped conditions and a conspicuous lack of adequate sewage and water supply systems ensured that such areas were rife with diseases such as cholera, typhus and typhoid fever


Death in the 20th century

The great shadow over the first decades of the 20th century was influenza, centering of course around the devastating Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19. Influenza was actually nothing new – its symptoms were clearly described by Hippocrates around 2,400 years ago – but it was from this period onwards that the illness was referred to by that name. Influenza is still listed as a cause of mortality in CDC Historical Data for the 1990s, though it is no longer the deadly, virtually untreatable threat of a hundred years ago. The mortality rate has greatly decreased, perhaps thanks to the availability of vaccinations and antivirals.

Other causes of death in the 20th century death records include tuberculosis (which faded away in the second half of the century), motor accidents, nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys), pneumonia and cerebrovascular diseases. Over the past few decades, the list of potentially fatal illnesses has narrowed considerably, and the majority of all illness-related deaths are now due to heart diseases, cancer, and to a lesser extent, diabetes mellitus. Sometimes these illnesses are treatable, but all too often they are still fatal.

The post was written from a western perspective as I was relying on English and North American death records. However, I must stress that many people in the developing world are still dying of diseases which Europeans and Americans imagine extinct, or ailments which are generally no longer fatal for us. In September 2011 there was a huge outcry over a 24-year old man from Cincinnati who died from toothache because he couldn’t afford the medical insurance which would have given him the antibiotics required to cure him. No such outcry is made every time someone in Africa dies of toothache, of cholera, or of childbed fever.

  • John Gaunt’s table of casualties in London (1629-1660)
  • Record of births and burials at Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia (Dec. 25 1768-Dec. 25 1769)
  • Portsmouth, N. H., 1801 Bill of Mortality
  • Boston 1812 Bill of Mortality
  • Massachusetts mortality rates (1856-95) from “Mortality Changes in Amercia: 1620-1920”, Human Biology, September 1984. Vol. 56, No.3, pp.559-582
  • CDC Historical Data for 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990