Nameless: The Tragedy of Anonymity in Death

Death is a subject we find difficult to discuss. Strangely, it’s the only thing we all have in common. Though we’ll each feel its inevitable grip, we also experience its tragic totality in the loss of those we love. Usually when somebody dies, we celebrate their passing with a fitting memorial. We hope to receive the same, almost as some grand punctuation mark to our lives. We expect a headstone, of some description, or the grim dust of cremation’s ashes. Whatever we might choose as an epitaph, our hope is that our earthly names may at least remain.

For some, however, such immortality has been cold in its desertion. The unidentified corpses of war sidestep the honour of specific remembrance. Murder victims, abandoned without a hope of exhumation, leave a mere statistic. In bygone times, criminals in receipt of capital punishment had simple initials carved into their stone. The poor can’t afford more than a salute and a blessing. For these, no one plot in our worldly dirt acts as a dedicated tribute. It’s a product of inequality and, under that light, a deep shame and injustice.

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The Unknown Warrior, a largely symbolic tomb to an unidentified victim of the First World War, is an example of our sentimentality towards anonymous death. Perhaps it comes less from our empathy for the deceased, and more from our own fears. We aim for closure, and the resolution that comes with a grave or an urn. Accordingly, some will even pay large sums of money to give ceremony to people they’ve never met. It’s a form of reassurance that, should some unthinkable fate befall us, our quietus may not go unnoticed. It’s easy to think that these considerations are frivolous against the consuming heft of bereavement. One tale, set just a handful of miles from my home, instead reveals that they’re a positive indictment of our better natures.

In the British county of Lincolnshire, where I have spent my entire life excluding holidays, the picturesque village is a honed speciality. From the back-to-back beauty of Tealby and Walesby to the accommodating intrigue of Woodhall Spa, such settlements encapsulate Englishness. They tend to sell homemade ice cream and fresh eggs, or feature bus shelters without crude graffiti. They’re a joy to visit, if often only fleetingly on larger journeys. Not far past Morrisons, the last imposing castle of my town’s greater population, sits Irby upon Humber.

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A place happy in the sweetness of the air and very delightful by the pleasant hills and dales, where there are dry and inviting walks both summer and winter, with a welcome prospect towards the sea; affording as good hawking and hunting, and as good conveniency for training and airing young horses, as can be found anywhere.

– Gervase Holles, a 17th century Mayor of Grimsby, describing Irby upon Humber in Biographia Britannica.

In the nearly four centuries since that description was written, the village has barely changed. It hides away in the green, beckoning leisure walkers to tread its historic ground. Its first, and most memorable, feature is St Andrew’s Church; an impressive structure with elements of its design originating in the 12th century. When I personally took a trip to Irby upon Humber, the church grounds were the first thing I explored. With evocative gravestones and breathtaking architecture, the spot can have an impact vastly exceeding its size. You could spend significant time there without noticing the artefact of legend that waits unassuming in the overgrown grass.

A diminutive, and ill-maintained, headstone stands alone and humble among its more elegantly furnished brethren. Behind it, and several paces in front of it, are rows of traditional graves. Upon them, you can read the condensed stories of long dead locals; you can gain a sense of the soul that once was. The same can’t be said of Nameless, the smallest stone, left basking in the shadow of its surroundings. Beyond its statement of anonymity, its only inscription reads, “Be sure your sin will find you out”.

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It sounds, in essence, like a threat. It’s partly because of this that the stone has gathered such narrative moss since it appeared in the yard. Its lack of a name has only added fuel to the creative whispers that follow it. Compelling in its mystery, the imaginative of us can dream of answers indefinitely. One suggestion postulates that it’s the final resting place of an unacquainted vagrant. Another belief is that it follows the pattern of how unbaptised children were remembered. Debate rages over the gravestones of murderers who, as I previously mentioned, typically had their initials engraved. It’s more likely that an actual victim, whose name couldn’t be traced, would fit the bill. Could it even have been an example of antique comedy?

No matter the truth, which I’ll soon outline, it’s fascinating that the parish went to these lengths for Nameless. Unfortunately, the overwhelming emotion is one of sadness and regret for the human being behind the conjecture. It again reflects our own terror of death. We abhor the waste that concludes in an anonymous headstone. By exploring the possibilities, we convince ourselves that Nameless has finally received its due. Alive again in the minds of those who discover it, maybe its otherwise forgotten individuality tastes some of the reverence it deserves. As part of a personal investigation, and in collaboration with an invested few, Rod Collins eventually brought fact to the spiralling stories of Nameless.

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On a Sunday morning in February 1888, probably locked into the encroaching chill of mid-Winter, John Vickers prepared for his duties in the employ of Mr. Nainby, then owner of the church’s field. At the young age of thirteen, Vickers was surely ready for a day of honest, shivering graft. What he didn’t anticipate was the sight that greeted him as he made his way across Nainby’s lawn. Mounted by the pecking beaks of ravenous crows, the scarred carcass of a baby laid close to a shallow and hastily dug hole; dragged from its inadequate burial by “a dog or some animal”*.

How it must have felt for John Vickers, himself a child, to so directly face mortality is dreadful. Presumably, the ordeal haunted his own continued existence. In the moment, horror took hold as he almost certainly thought of the inhumanity that discarded the infant. In an edition of Lincolnshire Life from 1968, a Mrs. L. Lawe recounts having spoken to an elderly Vickers about the event. In her letter, she tells of how he ran, determined and incessant, to his father and the church’s pastor to relay his gruesome find. What happened to Nameless is awful enough, but the lament of a teenage boy is painfully resonant.

An excerpt of Mrs. Lawes' letter, from a watermarked PDF of Lincolnshire Life.

An excerpt of Mrs. Lawes’ letter, from a watermarked PDF of Lincolnshire Life.

Soon, the following Monday, a village home held an inquest. Just as quickly, the official burial took place and the headstone was installed; all by Tuesday. After all, it’s not a matter that any sane person would wish to linger on. The inscription, “Be sure your sin will find your out”, is intended for the parent; a despicable case of shirked responsibility and selfishness. We’ll never know if that very parent returned to the field, only to stumble on the guilt-soaked grave. Would they have even felt anguish for their fatal mistake? Had they already come to terms with their dishonour? Like all of us hearing the tale in hindsight, their heart may have broken at the melancholic enormity of their failure.

It’s something that Nameless has a tangible tribute. People like Rod Collins have only expanded on it, by collecting and cataloguing the sources that answer the riddle. Everyone who walks by Nameless senses something of its profundity. In a glorious paradox of human thought, the very fact that it’s anonymous renders it so memorable that we ask if names in death hold any meaning whatsoever. We all empathise with the short-lived plight of Nameless, regardless of its anonymity. Indeed, without its fetching enigma, a gravestone would be some distance from the subject of my prose.

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Touched by the whole reality of the stone, how could I not chip some words into the Secret Cave as my own attempt at acknowledgement? In the end, we lose far more than our names. Even dense stone is slave to the erosion of relentless time. Nameless didn’t have the chance to give anyone a memory to cherish. It never spoke its first word, or stood on the freedom of two feet. It died alone, without even the concept of fear as a comfort. As a result of the crows’ hunger, the lesions and marks on its body made it impossible to establish a gender at the least.

I don’t type this out of morbid enchantment. My intent is not to upset or disturb. With this piece, I’d like to do what I can to spread the truth of Nameless. It was a life that should be treasured in its innocent simplicity. In deference to the quiet that the parent would have preferred, Nameless should never be forgotten. Likewise, neither should our own transience. We’re better off if we neglect thinking on our eulogies, and allow them to write themselves. Then, we can live. Nameless never had the space to follow us in this, but let that inform your adventure. Anonymity in death is tragic at its core. Still, if we can take something from Nameless, it’s that we’re more than our labels; especially in death. We’re, for the most part, love, pain and care. To those who aren’t, be sure your sin will find you out.

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*as reported by Grimsby News, available on microfilm from the Grimsby Library.

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.