Secrets of the Gravestones!

During our time at Woodland, we have come across many odd little happenings that we would not have noticed in the cemetery without working here. For example, we met a small squirrel that crawled up our (clothed) legs and opted for a ride on our backpacks. We also watched a deer give birth, which was the coolest, but perhaps not the best lunchtime entertainment. And, we recently realized the purple markings on our white marble monuments is actually mulberry bird poop. We’ve had daily, if not hourly, instances where we’ve exclaimed something along the lines of “what! that’s so cool!” And, we’ve even had a few moments where we’ve flipped over a monument to be reset, only to uncover something even cooler on the back.

Marion Phillips’s gravestone, 1851.

We found our first monument surprise while preparing the stones for Meagan and Thomas’ tour, “A Newcomer’s Guide to Resting in Woodland.” This mainly involved cleaning the monuments they planned to talk about, but we also wanted to reset a monument that had fallen directly in front of a tour stop, Thomas Phillips, M.D. Upon edging and pulling the grass back from the stone, we realized it was the daughter of Phillips, Marion Phillips, who died in 1851. The entire monument was there but broken into three pieces, so we initially thought we would raise it again. That was until we realized this was the coolest stone we’ve ever seen!

While we were scrubbing away at the stone, Robyn started freaking out in excitement- the stone had carved faces in the bottom! She had initially thought the unfamiliar patterns were from root markings, but soon recognized them as ‘carver doodles.’ There are two full faces, complete with eyes and lips, and an extra set of lips to the left of them carved into the bottom of the stone. This monument was a long slab of marble without a key, which meant at least a foot of it was to be buried underground to anchor it. Apparently, when a carver knew that a portion of the stone was to be buried and hidden from sight, they would practice lettering, or in our case just doodle, on that portion of the stone.

Because this was unprecedented in any of the stones we found, it was quickly decided that the historical significance of these doodles outweighed our original desire to erect this stone. Instead, we filled the hole where it laid with limestone screening, and placed in back on top. This way, everyone can enjoy the carver’s doodles. If you want to find them, they are along the road in the back of Section S, to the west of the large ornamental sandstone ring cross) monument. They are most evident when you angle a flashlight across or pour water on them.

Robyn and I found our next monument with a secret in section EC, one of Woodland’s old children’s sections, while we were randomly edging up tablets while waiting to get our drill. I noticed a tablet to ‘Baby Sloman’ was stained green and on its way to becoming sunken, so I decided to pull it up to pack limestone screening underneath and dig out a frame for it. But much to our delight, there were inscriptions on the back!

The monument had crystal clear iconography of a lamb underneath a willow, and it read, ‘IN memory of SARAH Daughter of,’ before it broke off in a perfectly straight line. We think that the carver discarded Sarah’s stone, for unknown reasons, and recycled the slab of marble to use the front! I get the logic, why not reuse material if it’s going to sit as a tablet in the ground, anyways? This sitting in the dirt is actually why the iconography was persevered so well. Even though Sloman’s stone was erected in 1912, the back was protected by dirt and obviously not exposed to the regular substances that stain marble stones in the air.

Unfortunately, since the nature of a tablet only allows one side to be showing at once, we had to rebury the back of the monument. The good news however is that we were able to document this, so that all of you lovely people can see it on the Internet, instead!

Strange zig-zags on Maurice Baker’s stone, 1853.

On one of our final gravestones, we found another little carver doodle in the form of some squiggles. They are fairly uniform, but do not appear on both sides of the stone so are likely from a tool, rather than being lifted by machinery, etc. This could have been carved on the stone before it was a gravestone, or maybe was the result of the carver testing their tools? This particular stone was carved by one Mr. Thomas Francis, a gravestone carver here in London. If only he was still around to ask about this!

Our final gravestone surprise was occurred while we worked on the many fallen monuments lining the south end of Section K. We decided to work in this area mainly because it was shaded by a tree on either side, so we had coverage throughout the entire day, but also because this was along the tour route, and we had decided to give our demonstration here.

Contemporary hidden writing!

While we were primarily working on older stones, I also realized that there was a sunken granite tablet, which turned out to be from 1983. We have no idea how it sunk a few inches underground in such a short time frame! I needed the assistance of Thomas to help me pull the tablet out of its hole, because granite is a heavy material, and the tablet was quite large in a cement frame. We flipped it onto the grass, and realized there was black writing on the back! This indicated the size of the stone, and that the maker of the monument was Ideal Monuments. This seems like a rather mundane discovery, but this was the only time we had ever come across this! Usually tablets are straight and flat across the back, with no indication of where they came from. Standing monuments, on the contrary, sometimes list the carver on the front of the bottom on Victorian Era monuments, and on the back of newer monuments.

The results of a rusted pin…

There are a few secrets to the ‘typical’ stones we’ve worked on, too. First, many of the multilayered marble stones have metal rods that connect the pieces together. However, many of these rods have eroded, and only gravity holds the stones up. When we drilled wooden pins into stones, we make our own holes, as the old ones are too wide for us and have metal bits left them. And finally, most of the marble stones we’ve pulled out of the ground have peculiar dirt patterns covering the side facing down. This is because of all the ant tunnels! We’ve unfortunately learned that ants like to nest, and make egg pools right underneath stones. As a result of this, we’re usually cautious to raise stones, quickly looking to see if any ants are too close for comfort!

Isn’t it amazing, what secrets can lie just below the surface? Gravestone hold more than just information about the people they memorialize, they carry the personalities and work of their carvers, family ties and faiths, personal interests, history, and sometimes clues about the environment in which they stand. We feel extremely lucky to be the first people to see some of these ‘cemetery secrets’ in decades, and we hope you have enjoyed learning about them with us!