TAPHOPHILIA

I was introduced to cemeteries as interesting places to visit while I was still in primary school. My father had taken it upon himself to clear the bush encroaching on a chapel and cemetery situated not far from Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal, where he was the Mine Captain. It was from seeing the graves of babies and children younger than I was that I learned about the scourge of malaria, while other graves informed me of the horror of a local train disaster.

It was in this half-forgotten cemetery that I became fascinated by the different epitaphs and shapes of gravestones; where I discovered my interest in the choice of symbols and biblical verses; where I learned something of the life expectancy in the late nineteenth century; and found interesting references to where people had come from – these were all things my father was happy to talk about.

Over the years I have discovered that there is much of historical significance to learn from visiting cemeteries, be it social, military, or related to families and religions. Should you spend any time there, you soon realise that cemeteries are, in a manner of speaking, outdoor museums that require you to look carefully – and possibly do later research – in order to interpret what you are seeing. My father was a keen amateur historian, who was particularly interested in the turbulent military history of his adopted country. As a result, many of our journeys were broken so that we could visit significant graves and monuments along the way.

I did not know then that during the years to come I would continue in this vein, as well as visiting various battle sites, with my husband. I also didn’t know that there is a word, tapophilia, to describe this interest in what old cemeteries have to offer. The word comes from the Greek taph (tomb) and philia (fondness or admiration). Sadly, many cemeteries in our platteland towns have been more or less abandoned either because of indifference by the local municipalities or simply because the towns are no longer thriving. Some, like the old cemetery in our town, are no longer safe to visit on one’s own although the aptly named New Cemetery is a different matter.

Of particular interest to me are the many symbols evident in older cemeteries especially. Angels are commonly regarded as the messengers of God who act as a guide to help the soul of the departed towards Heaven. Winged cherubs watch over the graves of babies and children to convey their innocence. The unbroken circle of a wreath represents everlasting life.

While the Celtic or Irish cross, taking the form of a cross within a circle, generally represents eternity.

A broken column indicates a life cut short; a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

Obelisks, on the other hand, apparently became popular after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1801.This one also depicts the commonly used Masonic symbol of the compass and square, which represent faith and reason.

Having found the word, tapophilia, and given my interest in cemeteries, the depiction of symbols and the history reflected by gravestones, I realise I must be a taphophile.

THE BITTEREST TEARS

It was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) who is quoted as saying: The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.

These words come to mind whenever I visit older cemeteries in some of the smaller towns and especially the many military graves scattered in the rural areas. Sadly, many of these places suffer from neglect and vandalism: headstones have been broken, metal letters gouged out, metal crosses and chains have either been broken or removed. Trees, weeds and grass grow unchecked except by diminishing numbers of volunteers. The old cemetery in our town is a treasure trove for historians, yet one wouldn’t dream of entering it alone for fear of being mugged!

Back to those bitterest tears; in chronological order come five examples of lives cut short:

Trooper W. A. Randall was killed in action at Kalabani British Basutoland in 1880. I find it particularly poignant that his age is given as 20 years and 10 months – as if to show that he was on his way towards his 21st birthday. The latter must have been as significant a milestone then as it is now.

For some it is important to remember why one’s loved one died. The sense of loss perhaps assuaged a little by this – bitter tears shed nonetheless – as in the case of George J. Fitzpatrick who, aged 29, was killed at Willow Grange whilst carrying off a wounded comrade.

Here is a grave of a veld kornet who died seven months before the end of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). W.H.H. Pretorius was only 27 years old – so many deeds left undone! The inscription is written in Dutch, for Afrikaans as we know it, had not yet become an official language.

Not all military men died of wounds: Lieut. F. H. Pratt-Barlow died in 1902 from enteric fever, aged only 20.

Plaques in churches tell this sad story too: Rex Montgomery Hilligan was 22 years old when he died in 1943: He too loved life but loving dared not save himself lest those he loved should pay the price.

LYCH GATE

Apart from the vehicle entrance, the pedestrian entry to the campus of the school I used to teach at was a small lych gate. Lych gates are more commonly seen as entrances to a churchyard or consecrated ground.

This is a church school and the gate is really only a stone’s throw from the school chapel, so the choice may be forgiven – I believe it was erected as a memorial to someone, although there is no sign of that on the gate. When I was there, very few of the girls attending the school knew what a lych gate represents. To them it was simply the name of a place: “meet me at the Lych Gate” was no different from “meet me at the drinking fountain”. The school, well over a century old, is peppered with names commemorating people or events from the past that have simply become names in the present – the historical significance gradually disappearing over time. The amusing aspect of this particular lych gate though is that a long-serving member of the administrative staff would regularly refer to it as the LYNCH gate! This might have been related to the spellcheck in MSWord – which duly underlined every ‘lych’ in this paragraph and suggested it be replaced with ‘lynch’. It was an interesting slip though for the word ‘lych’ comes from the Old English līc, meaning corpse.

In practical terms, a lych gate is a covered gate that was traditionally where the corpse bearers would wait for the priest to receive the corpse for burial. The one I mentioned earlier has low wooden gates, but this modern one at the entrance to the New Cemetery in Grahamstown, is a drive-through one.

Following tradition it has a pitched roof, this one covered with clay tiles. It also has small bench seats on either side, which would originally have been a resting place for the shroud-wrapped body or coffin. In these days of hearses, the best these narrow benches could offer perhaps is some shelter for a few people from the rain.

THE UNIVERSITY OF FORT HARE

I really did not have an idea of what to expect when we entered the Alice campus of the University of Fort Hare, founded in 1916 on the site of what had been a British stronghold in the previous century. Signs of the latter can still be seen on the campus in the form of both a cemetery and a replica of Fort Hare.

Julius Malema had obviously addressed the student body on the 16th June this year – a public holiday known as Youth Day (which commemorates a wave of protests commonly known as the Soweto uprising of 1976). I imagine the sports complex was chosen as a venue in order to accommodate a large number of students. The scratch marks across his face pose an interesting question: if you don’t like him, why not remove the poster – after all, it is nearly two months old!

While the campus was looking reasonably well kept, given that it is winter and we are still experiencing a drought – there are still numerous signs of student unrest that led to the burning of buildings in the not too distant past.

A military cemetery/garden of remembrance on the campus is the final resting place for British and colonial soldiers who died during the 8th Frontier War, fought in 1850.

The names of those interred there have been inscribed on a monument erected by the South African War Graves Board in 1973.

There are nonetheless a number of graves of soldiers marked ‘unknown’.

Among the few elaborate graves is this one:

There is a brightly painted indication of where to find the Department of Fine Arts:

A replica of the original Fort Hare is also on the campus.

The Eastern Cape is criss-crossed with graves, remnants of forts, sites of ambushes and battles. Each provides an insight to the past that has forged the people who inhabit the area today. There is something very sobering about each site, particularly those out in what we call the ‘bundu’ where one is compelled to contemplate such events while surrounded by thorn trees, boulders, the wind, and bird song – signs that nature continues despite the human turmoil of the past.