by Dr Jack Binns
For many centuries, before and after the Protestant Reformation, the church exercised a monopoly of the administration, conduct and authorisation of the three principal rites of passage – baptism, marriage and burial. Both baptism and marriage could be avoided, but death was inescapable.
In medieval times, Scarborough’s Catholics might have a choice of where they buried their dead. The town had three friaries, each with its own consecrated graveyard, and three chapels and churches, St Thomas the Martyr, the Holy Sepulchre and St Mary’s. Yet, in practice, all but a privileged few ended up at the parish church of St Mary’s on Pillory Hill, most of them just outside its walls.
After the Reformation closed the friaries and later both the Holy Sepulchre and St Thomas were demolished, the parish church had exclusive possession of consecrated burial space. The former chapel yards were let out by St Mary’s churchwardens and at least one of them was temporarily a bowling green.
Catholics and Protestants disagreed about what would happen to the souls of their dead, but not how their corpses should be interred. Both pre- and post-Reformation, common Christian belief in the second coming of Christ, his final judgement at Doomsday, and the resurrection of the body of the deceased to rejoin a soul saved for everlasting life, all meant that there was no fundamental change of burial practices from Catholic to Protestant.
The dead were buried in the earth, facing upwards towards the east to greet the angel at the resurrection dawn. (In the 20th century, the abandonment of interment, a key, characteristic ceremony from Christianity’s earliest time, in favour of incineration would astonish our ancestors who burned only heretics!) Archaeologists continue to distinguish Christian from pagan burials by their east-west orientation.
Traditionally, the graveyard on the south side of the church was preferred and burials as close to the church walls as possible. Indeed, at St Mary’s, so many graves were dug right up against the outer walls of the building that they rotted them. Burial plots were at a premium. Corpses were stacked on top of each other and at Scarborough “surplus” old bones were transferred across “Castle Road” to the charnel house or ossuary to make room for new bodies.
Until the 18th century headstones or monuments were very rare and only within the means of the richest burgesses. Scarborough’s wealthiest dead found privileged places in St Mary’s choir, in one of the south side chantries or in St Nicholas’s north side aisle. Ranging in date from the earliest in the 1690s to the latest in the 1840s, hundreds of monumental brasses were inscribed with the names and alleged virtues of Scarborough’s deceased whose relatives could afford to pay for them.
Burials were an important source of revenue to the church and its officers. The sexton’s task was to prepare the graves, the gravemaker dug them to the required minimum depth, usually six feet, and bellringers were paid to announce funerals.
In medieval times, Scarborough’s friars walked the streets ringing handbells to summon householders to attend interments. After the Reformation, this duty was reserved to St Mary’s bellringers. The deceased poor were wrapped in shrouds; the wealthy were placed in wooden boxes. Not even paupers were buried naked. The largest part of the fee for the funeral ceremony was claimed by the vicar or curate. As one local parson admitted: “Without the dead I wouldn’t have a living.” During the 18th century the standard charge for adult burials inside St Mary’s was ten shillings and 6s. 8d. for a child; outside they cost only half as much.
Church graveyards required fencing or perimeter walls to keep out stray animals from rooting up the ground. In Scarborough, as elsewhere, roaming pigs were a constant threat to graves and their contents. Human grave robbers were known to steal shrouds from corpses and even exhume bodies for medical experimentation.
After 1660, it became increasingly difficult for St Mary’s to collect traditional fees.
Scarborough’s Quakers, Presbyterians and Baptists preferred their own funeral ceremonies and their own private burial grounds. The Quakers interred their dead on Folly Lane which became Westover Road. Later, after they built a new Meeting House in St Sepulchre Street in 1801, they had a graveyard next to it which survives today. By that time the Baptists had their own plot next to their Ebenezer chapel on Longwestgate, another modern survivor. There were also small cemeteries attached to the Independent and Wesleyan chapels, but Scarborough’s growing number of Catholics had no place for their community.
Moreover, non-Anglicans continued to suffer from the privileged legal status of the established church. Until 1836, when a general civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was made obligatory by the state, only the Church of England’s registers were accepted as legitimate. And it was not until as late as 1880 that Parliament passed an act permitting non-Anglican burial services to be held at parish church gravesides and even then Anglican clergymen could claim a fee.
Meanwhile in Scarborough, whereas the Dissenters had run out of their confined plots which were hemmed in by houses, the Anglicans had taken advantage of their spacious surroundings. In 1779, the Corporation had exchanged some of its land with Sir Charles Hotham for his extensive field on the west side of St Mary’s; a year later, they had bought Paradise Close on the opposite side from him; and finally, in 1809, a third area, from the same Hotham source, on the south-western slope below the parish church was purchased for another graveyard.
Nevertheless, by the 1850s, the scarcity of burial ground for Scarborough’s Anglicans had become almost as acute as that for its Nonconformist population. With a rapidly growing resident number exceeding 15,000, every year there were about 320 deaths in the borough and at least half of them were of non-Anglicans.
As the religious census of Sunday March 30, 1851, revealed, the English nation was not even overwhelmingly Christian and now only a minority were church-going Anglicans. Out of a total population of nearly 18 million, only seven million had attended any place of worship, church, chapel or Sunday School, on that day and nearly half of them were Nonconformists.