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The graveyard shift

Blog | By Sharon Griffiths | Dec 04, 2019

Illustrated by Peter Bailey

There’s nothing like a graveyard for a good picnic. And Palm Sunday’s the day to do it.

A flask of tea and a tin of Welsh cakes, flowers, bucket, scrubbing-brush, garden tools, and away we’d go. My mother and her sisters would work their way around all the family graves in the mountainside cemetery in the Cynon Valley in South Wales – a graveyard so steep that I’ve spent funerals with my arm wrapped around a tree to prevent myself tumbling down the hillside and landing on top of the coffin.

Grandparents, great-grandparents, great-uncles and aunts – there were a lot of long-gone family up there, right at the top with the best view, a lot of gravestones to get round. It took all afternoon. That’s why we needed the picnic.

On Palm Sunday the place buzzed. Everyone would be there, tending graves, washing headstones, weeding plots, putting fresh flowers in place with sad heads shaking over the raw new graves that had appeared since the year before. For my mother, living miles away, it was a chance to meet up with old friends and catch up with gossip, while my cousins and I, trying not to roll down the hill, sat with our backs wedged against the headstones, guzzling our pop and crisps. Flower sellers would set up stalls at the cemetery gates. Small boys clutched bunches of daffs, picked that morning from you’d better not ask where.

Palm Sunday in Welsh is ‘Sul y Blodau’ – Flower Sunday. But it was years before I realised that this strange compulsion of my mother to go grave-scrubbing on that particular day was actually an ancient tradition.

Decorating graves with flowers and herbs wasn’t an entirely Welsh custom but the Welsh, particularly the south Welsh, embraced it enthusiastically.

‘The graves of Glamorganshire decorated with flowers and herbs at once gratify the relations of the departed and please the observer,’ wrote historian Benjamin Heath Malkin in 1803.

He even listed the flowers considered suitable – and the opportunities for mischief by planting the ‘wrong’ flowers on an enemy’s grave.

Francis Kilvert was unimpressed by his Clyro parishioners’ well-meaning but clumsy efforts. He wanted them to make neat primrose crosses on the graves:

‘I wish we could get people to adopt some design in the flowers upon the graves instead of sticking sprigs into the turf aimlessly, anywhere anyhow,’ he wrote in 1870. On Easter Eve he wrote that ‘The roads were lively with people coming and going and the churchyard a busy scene with women and children and a few men kneeling down beside the green mound flowering the graves.’

Easter Eve was the day in west Wales too. Our Easter Saturday outing with my Pembrokeshire gran was always the graveyard tour, but it was never quite as jolly or sociable as Palm Sunday in the industrial south. No picnic either, but there was plenty of homebrew in whitewashed farmhouses afterwards.

Further east, in the industrial valleys of South Wales, Palm Sunday was the big day. In 1884 an American journalist described ‘women washing and scrubbing tombs and headstones, men trimming grass and shrubs. Each step covered in moss, a root of maidenhair and primrose on each step. When Easter is late and flowers consequently numerous, the whole churchyard as we enter on Palm Sunday seems to be one mass of blossom and colour.’

The crowds weren’t always peaceful. Rivalry between families could lead to arguments and even punch-ups in the churchyards. The Monmouthshire Merlin of 1888 reported that ‘due to rowdyism in the cemetery on Flowering Sunday there was yesterday a strong force of police on duty.’ But in 1904 the manager of the Cathays cemetery in Cardiff noted that on Palm Sunday ‘upwards of 100,000 visitors passed through the cemetery during the day and not a single case of pilfering or complaint reported.’

Palm Sunday is still a busier day than normal in the graveyards of South Wales, but the huge crowds have gone. Elaborate decorations are also a thing of the past – these days it’s more likely to be a quick wash and polish of the stone and a nice bunch of daffodils.

My parents ended their days in Yorkshire and are buried far away from the steep mining valleys or the Pembrokeshire primroses, in a vast flat municipal cemetery where the biting east wind whips straight off the sea. Most of the locals make their spring visit to family graves over Easter weekend. But I’m there on Palm Sunday, of course.