From the Middle Ages through to the mid-17th century, most people were buried in simple graves marked (if at all) by a wooden cross, or under a plain flagstone of the church floor; only the elite received inscribed tombstones, effigies, or brass plaques. It was normal for graves to be reopened after some years, any remaining bones removed to an ossuary, and the ground reused for fresh burials. 'Perpetual graves' became common from the 1650s onwards, each with its carved and inscribed stone(s), offering an opportunity for local traditions of funerary art to develop, and for long, individualistic epitaphs and memorial verses. Elaboration and individualism were very marked in Victorian cemeteries; since the Second World War, however, Church authorities and town councils have curtailed the permitted choices, both in the design of headstones and in the wording of epitaphs. The rigidity of their rules may be one reason for the current liking for intensely personal *memorials at the scenes of tragic deaths.
   Visiting and tending graves is a custom which varies greatly from one family to another. Some people visit weekly, or even daily; a far larger number visit at specific dates, especially in the days leading up to *Mothering Sunday, *Easter, and *Christmas, bringing cards and seasonal flowers or a holly wreath. Personal dates (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, the anniversary of death) may be similarly observed. In municipal London cemeteries, some graves of young children are decked at Christmas with floral teddies and Father Christmases, or with actual toys, and helium balloons tied nearby (FLS News 21 (1995), 9-10). However, there are also very many people who cannot or will not tend graves.
   The traditional orientation of graves, still observed in most churchyards though not in municipal cemeteries, is towards the *east in readiness for *Doomsday. There are generally fewer on the ill-omened *north side of the church. All graves, marked or unmarked, must be treated respectfully; to tread on one is both wrong and unlucky, and also to pick flowers growing on one. A grave prepared for a Monday funeral should not be left open on the Sunday, for then someone else will shortly die; boards should be laid across it. When sextons digging new graves unearth bones from older burials, some rebury them where they lie, others in the strip of ground right against the church itself, where the soil is too shallow for normal graves [JS].
   In folk *medicine, contact with death was regarded as curative; teeth from *skulls prevented toothache, moss growing on them cured plague and headaches, and parts of *coffins were good for various ills. In Cornwall in the 1850s, dew from 'the grave of the last young man buried in the churchyard' was gathered at dawn to cure a swollen neck (N&Q 1s:2 (1855), 474-5). The strangest belief, recorded from Sussex and Lincolnshire in 1868 and 1933 respectively, was that if a child inclined to bed-wetting is made to urinate into an open grave, or on to the grave of a child of opposite sex, this will stop the habit (Latham, 1878: 49; Folk-Lore 44 (1933), 204).
   Graves are sometimes found, singly or in groups, on hilltops, in woods, or by the roadside. Reasons for such unorthodox locations vary; some were private burial grounds for Quakers or Nonconformists, denied access to Anglican churchyards, or for aristocratic landowners and their households; some for individuals who had personal motives to choose a particular spot. Roadside graves, if unmarked, are often said to be those of *suicides, or of highwaymen hanged, gibbetted, and eventually buried, at the scene of their crimes; these traditions may be well founded. Some are kept neat and have flowers regularly laid on them by *Gypsies and others; these include a Highwayman's Grave near Beck-hampton (Wiltshire), the Boy's Grave near Newmarket (Suffolk), and Jay's Grave near Haytor (Devon), where a suicidal girl is laid. Legends naturally proliferate; the Betty of Betty's Grave, at a crossroads near Poulton (Gloucestershire) is variously called a suicide, a murder victim, a witch, a sheep-stealer, or a woman who dropped dead after a mowing competition (Chetwynd-Stapylton, 1968).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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