A rather grave error

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We have a simple epitaph on the my dad and sister’s grave

When I read through my dad’s old columns, I often come across references to our family, and what we were doing at the time, events that I may have forgotten or that have been lost in the mists of time.

In his column from 27th February 1982, he writes about the impressive sighting of a great spotted woodpecker trying to eat from a bird feeder in our garden: ‘As this was hanging just outside our kitchen window, we were afforded a first class view of this beautiful bird; a double enjoyment was that we were celebrating my daughter’s 18th birthday and the house was full of teenagers who’d never seen such a colourful bird in the wild.’

Reading this brought a slight lump to my throat as that sentence referred to my late sister, Tricia, who would have turned 18 on 8th February 1982. The words conjured up an image of a gaggle of excitable girls enjoying the festivities, with not a care in the world about what the future held.

Dad wrote his columns two weeks in advance, which is why he was referring to the celebrations some time after they had taken place. I follow his lead on that score, and so am writing this the day after what would have been Tricia’s 58thbirthday (she died of cancer in 2018). If you have lost a loved one, then you’ll know birthdays and anniversaries are always occasions of mixed emotions. The first few are pretty difficult, but as time goes on they become a blend of both sadness at the loss alongside happy recollections from when they were alive. To mark the day, we attended a mass being held in her memory, and then went to spend some quiet time by the grave she shares with my dad, placing some flowers on the headstone.

Dad could not have known it when he wrote the column back in 1982 that the second topic that he writes about is rather appropriate when I read it today, as it concerns epitaphs. The one we chose for my dad and sister’s headstone is very simple, just expressing our family’s sadness at their passing along with the significant dates.

However, some people choose words that reflect more about how that person lived. A reader had contacted Dad saying that the saddest epitaph he had ever seen was on a gravestone at St Mary Magdalene’s Church at Lillington, near Leamington Spa. It was for a William Treen who died in February 1810 and read:

‘I poorly liv’d and poorly dy’d, poorly buried, and no one cry’d.’

Known as Billy Treen, his final resting place is called ‘The Miser’s Grave’ because he had such a reputation for frugal living. According to a local history website, Billy, a labourer and road scraper, would beg his neighbours for discarded potato peelings and vegetable waste.

However on Saturday 18th February 1922, the local paper ran story about a tenant who was now residing in Billy Treen’s former cottage. He had found a purse containing ten silver coins hidden in the rafters dating from 1660 and 1690. Had these belonged to Billy Treen? Perhaps he wasn’t so poor after all!

Dad goes on to mention a few more. One is purportedly from a grave in Selby and reads:

‘Here lies my wife, a sad slattern and shrew.

If I said I regretted her, I should lie too.’

A rather cautionary sentiment is expressed on the grave of 10-year-old John Rose (or it could be John Dose) who died on January 27th 1810:

‘Dear friends and companions all, pray warning take by me.

Don’t venture on the ice too far, as t’was the death of me.’

There is another tale that Dad often told me to make me giggle. It goes like this: When a Yorkshireman’s God-fearing wife died, he asked the undertaker for a special line on her gravestone. It was ‘God, she was thine.’ The undertaker promised his stonemason would include the words and eventually the stone was installed upon her grave. But there was a mistake. The sentence read, ‘God, she was thin.’

The husband rang the undertaker to complain, saying, “You’ve missed off the ‘E’!” The undertaker apologised and said his stonemason would correct the error immediately. A few days later, the husband went to inspect the new lettering.

Now it read, ‘Ee, God, she was thin.’

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 25th and the Gazette & Herald on 23rd  February 2022

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