In a Field of Liches

There exists in the English language a tendency towards circumlocution when a dead body is mentioned; this leads to a series of euphemisms, many of them derived from Latin roots. “Corpse” is a good example.

Then there is the odd term “mortician”, which seems to have arisen during the nineteenth century. Evidently the circumlocution “undertaker” was still too vivid for peoples’ imaginations! The suffix “ician” is also used in the word “musician”, which would lead you to think that a mortician is someone who practices death as an occupation.

I’m reminded of the vivid slang word “stiff”, familiar to those who read detective and mystery novels. That word seems to have come from gangsters’ and criminals’ lingo during the Prohibition era.

Dead bodies are indeed unsettling. The contrast between the living and the dead is just too much for many people to handle and we retreat into euphemism or fantasies of resurrection. The current craze for zombie literature and film is one manifestation. When we die we might come back as pale and scarred beings with a taste for violence and blood — it’s still better than the alternative! A would-be zombie woman:

I’m fond of the obsolete Old English term “lich”:

Lich \Lich\ (l[i^]ch), n. [AS. l[imac]c body. See {Like}, a.]
A dead body; a corpse. [Obs.]

{Lich fowl} (Zool.), the European goatsucker; — called also
{lich owl}.

{Lich gate}, a covered gate through which the corpse was
carried to the church or burial place, and where the bier
was placed to await the clergyman; a corpse gate. [Prov.
Eng.] –Halliwell.

{Lich wake}, the wake, or watching, held over a corpse before
burial. [Prov Eng.] –Chaucer.

{Lich wall}, the wall of a churchyard or burying ground.

{Lich way}, the path by which the dead are carried to the
grave. [Prov. Eng.]

I was tickled to learn the term “lich fowl”. People historically have been suspicious of members of the avian goatsucker clan; the phrase reflects an ancient but erroneous belief that goatsuckers make nocturnal visits to dairy animals and steal milk. The local whippoorwill is one of our resident goatsuckers here in North America, and I can attest that encountering that bird at night does indeed give me a start every time.

Lately I’ve been delivering newspapers on a motor route in rural Adams County, Illinois. I enjoy the work, as it enables me to periodically drive through rural landscapes and see what there is to see. If I see something interesting I’ll stop and investigate, camera at my side.

I’d driven by the Fall Creek Chapel cemetery several times before I stopped and wandered around for a while:

I always gravitate towards the older tombstones in any cemetery. I particularly like seeing stones whose inscription is fading towards illegibility, a metaphor for every human’s posthumous fate in the surviving memories of friends and families.

Here’s an example:

This man lived a long life for his time; with an eighteenth century birth he must have been born in the Old World. The surname “Thompson” suggests a British origin. The lower inscription has succumbed to decades of weathering.

The “hopeful finger” is a recurring gravestone motif. Onward and upward!

Scroll back up to the first picture in this post (no, not the zombie woman — the next one down!). Look behind the metal cemetery sign and you will see a green mass humping up from the closely-shorn sward.

This thicket piqued my curiosity. There’s always a reason an area doesn’t get mowed. I peered into the greenery and saw that it was mostly mulberry sprouts and wild grapevines with a few pre-bloom goldenrods eking out a tenuous existence amidst such fierce competition. I got down on my hands and knees and wormed my way into the mysterious depths. It was sunny and ninety-five degrees that morning but the humidity was low and insects ignored me.

I found a concrete wall with an angled and peaked contour which evidently was intended to demarcate a family plot. The largest tombstone had given up the ghost, so to speak, and was lying comfortably on its back while slowly sinking into the root-filled humusy soil. A photo:

I cleared away sprouts and vines as well as accumulated fallen leaves and found this barely-legible inscription:

Henry, the son of someone, seemed to have died in 1862. Children died easily back then.

I scrambled in a little farther and found this sun-dappled stone:

How sad — the grave of a four-year-old girl named Katie Mable. I couldn’t figure out what the carving at the top was supposed to represent. Some sort of fruit? The hanging fruit on the left looks like an eggplant, but I’ve been eating a lot of eggplant lately and I’m probably biased.

I extricated myself from the thicket and drove off to deliver more papers on my maze-like route.




Filed under Photos, Quincy, Words

6 responses to “In a Field of Liches

  1. Joan

    Well, I actually prefer the ‘alternative’ rather than coming back as a Zombiefied Angelina Jolie, but to each his own. What a terrific post, Larry. Your new job is already yielding a bountiful harvest of prose and pictures.

    Having read way too many gothic novels in my youth, I was familiar with the term lich gate, but had no clue what it was for. Just figured it was the entrance to a church or churchyard. I wonder if the cemetery sign in your photo is a modified form of the old lich gate. Bonta’s Via Negativa blog has been featuring a number of poems inspired by photos he took at Highgate Cemetary on his London trip. Highgate Poems is the title. One specific poem had to do with magpies as graveyard birds, but interestingly enough, I could not see the magpies in his picture. Maybe it’s metaphorical. Had a hard time finding your goat sucking graveyard type birds, but they all seem to be owl related. Hmmm. I’d have thought ravens.

    Back to the graveyard. “a green mass humping up from the closely-shorn sward.” Sounded like a great intro to a horror story..but far from being a newly hatched monster, I found it to be some tall weeds hiding a gravestone. I’m still pondering the word sward. Wait wait! Don’t tell me… (grin)

    One question. Why would Mr. gravestone Thompson have to have been born in the old world if he was born in 1789? We had to have had a few people here already to fight the revolutionary war, and migrating ‘west’ back in those days meant Illinois and MO. My grandmother, born in Missouri somehow got herself traced back enough to become a DAR. (we won’t mention Daughters of the Confederacy) She was really into daughters. But I digress. Loved this post and awaiting more riverside rambles from the other side of the river.

  2. Thanks, Joan!

    You might be more familiar with the word “sward” as it is used in the related word “greensward”. It’s just sod or turf. We are fast approaching the season of “brownsward”, it seems! I like the sound of the word “sward”. To use a word coinage from Roy Blount Jr., the word is sonicky, meaning that it just sounds right.

    I suppose that a few second-generation folks born in the East during the late eighteenth century might have been brought as children to rural Illinois. I would hazard a guess that most people born that early came directly from the Old Country, though. That’s what is so fascinating about tombstone inscriptions — all you get are hints.

  3. Joan

    I am familiar with the word swath..but not sward…but now I am. I would have thought at first glace that it had something to do with swords.

    Well, my great grandfather’s bro was born in 1803 in Bourbon Cnty. Kentucky. That’s somewhat close to the 1799 birth age. The family migrated here in 1827 for land, and each brother plotted out his separate fiefdom. Migrations were pretty ongoing and if there was not enough land in the east they kept on going. And even in Kentucky they were not straight off the boat. I think they had this primogenitor thing going and the first son got all the land, leaving the others to head west for considerably greener pastures. Ah.. remember when they were green?

  4. Now I’m wondering about the names “Litchfield” and “Lichfield” — betcha it dates back to a field of corpses somewhere, or a burying ground.

  5. I’ve been wondering about that too, Genevieve. It looks like the author of the Wikipedia article on Lichfield, a town and district in Staffordshire, England, thought the root of the town’s name lies elsewhere:

    Legend has it that a thousand Christians were martyred in Lichfield around AD 300, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and that the name ‘Lichfield’ actually means ‘field of the dead’ (see Lich). There is however, no evidence to support this legend. At Wall, 3 miles (5 km) to the south of the present city, there was a Romano-British village called Letocetum from the British (Celtic) for “grey wood”, from which the first half of the name Lichfield is derived. The second part of the name is derived from the Old English “feld”, meaning ‘open country’. In that sense ‘Lichfield’ would be ‘common pasture in grey wood’, ‘grey’ perhaps referring to varieties of tree prominent in the landscape, such as ash and elm.

    Of course the article may have been written by a Lichfield resident who didn’t like the association of his or her home with a burying ground!

    Notice the British spelling of the word “grey”. Roy Blount Jr., in his book Alphabet Soup, wrote that, to him, “grey” sounds grayer than “gray”. I agree.

  6. Re 18tyh century birthdates. Joan’s 1803 date for her g-g-uncle isn’t out of line. My apparent g-g -granddad Moses was born in 1767, my g-gdsd in 1820, g-dad in 1858, my dad in 1898 . . so the old guys got it on it seems?

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