Memorial Day weekend, a time for cook-outs and anticipation of the joys of summer, was first established as “Decoration Day” to commemorate the dead of the Civil War. It was a time for the sentimental tending and planting of loved ones’ graves in a spirit ranging from the deepest woe to a grand day out with picnic baskets. Today the notion of the military dead has been taken over by a “thank you for your service” Veterans’ Day motif. The “Decoration” part of the day is expressed, if at all, by artificial flowers and resin figurines; the picnic aspect dominating. If all of our graveyards were as interesting as those of the Victorian/Edwardian era, this would be a great loss, but I find little joy in a Memorial Day visit to modern cemeteries, which are apt to be fields full of identical flat metal markers punctuated by angular religious statuary looking as though it was carved with a chainsaw.
Now that I have got that off my chest, let’s move on to a cemetery story from another country and the mid-19th-century when a stroll through the local graveyard might be a pleasant outing.
The last instance of this insight into the future which we shall cite from Mr.Pavin Phillips’s highly suggestive and interesting communication, is the record of an incident of the character referred to which occurred to him himself, in the year 1848, upon his return home after several years’ absence. “A few days after my arrival,” he states, “I took a walk one morning in the yard of one of our parish churches through which there is a right of way for pedestrians. My object was a twofold one: firstly to enjoy the magnificent prospect visible from that elevated position ; and secondly, to see whether any of my friends or acquaintances who had died during my absence were buried in the locality. After gazing around me for a short time, I sauntered on, looking at one tombstone and then at another, when my attention was arrested by an altar-tomb enclosed within an iron railing. I walked up to it, and read an inscription which informed me that it was in memory of Colonel__. This gentleman had been the assistant Poor Law Commissioner for South Wales, and while on one of his periodical tours of inspection, he was seized with apoplexy in the workhouse of my native town, and died in a few hours. This was suggested to my mind as I read the inscription on the tomb, as the melancholy event occurred during the period of my absence, and I was only made cognisant of the fact through the medium of the local press. Not being acquainted with the late Colonel , and never having even seen him, the circumstances of his sudden demise had long passed from my memory, and were only revived by my thus viewing his tomb. I then passed on, and shortly afterwards returned home. On my arrival my father asked me in what direction I had been walking? I replied,
‘In the churchyard, looking at the tombs, and among others I have seen the tomb of Colonel __, who died in the workhouse.’ ‘That,’ replied my father, ‘is impossible, as there is no tomb erected over Colonel__’s grave. At this remark I laughed. ‘My dear father,’ said I, ‘ you want to persuade me that I cannot read. I was not aware that Colonel was buried in the churchyard, and was only informed of the fact by reading the inscription on the tomb.’ * Whatever you may say to the contrary,’ said my father, ‘ what I tell you is true, there is no tomb over Colonel __ ‘s grave. Astounded by the reiteration of this statement, as soon as I had dined I returned to the churchyard, and again inspected all the tombs having railings round them, and found that my father was right. There was not only no tomb bearing the name of Colonel , but there was no tomb at all corresponding in appearance with the one I had seen. Unwilling to credit the evidence of my own senses, I went to the cottage of an old acquaintance of my boyhood, who lived outside of the churchyard gate, and asked her to show me the place where Colonel lay buried. She took me to the spot, which was a green mound, undistinguished in appearance from the surrounding graves. Nearly two years subsequent to this occurrence, surviving relatives erected an altar-tomb, with a railing round it, over the last resting-place of Colonel , and it was, as nearly as I could remember, an exact reproduction of the memorial of my day-dream….
“Second Sight and Supernatural Warnings” Notes and Queries, 10 July 1858
John Henry Ingram, in The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain, tells us that Mr Pavin Phillips was a “well-known contributor to Notes and Queries.” The earlier part of Phillips’ communication to that journal recounts several other stories of visions and sounds of phantom funerals, as well as ghostly coffins that had occurred among the members of the Phillips family and their servants. Ingram speculates that the area itself, Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, was haunted. I’ve written about phantom funerals on several occasions; they do seem to be location specific. Oddly, they are usually either seen or heard–not both.
As for other phantom tombstones, they are relatively rare in (non-fictional) paranormal history. I wrote about a young woman who dreamed of her own tombstone, complete with a specific date, in The Victorian Book of the Dead. It is a truly unsettling story. There is a classic fictional story called “August Heat,” by William Fryer Harvey on the same theme. Other examples of phantom or prophetic tombstones? Enclose in a nice wrought-iron railing in the Gothic taste and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murdereress Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.