‘Death is only an incident in Life’

This is the grave of Herbert Graham Barber at Authuile Cemetery on the Somme, his epitaph reads:

‘Death is only an incident in life’

The photo was sent to me last week by a friend who very kindly sends me pics of interesting epitaphs that he sees when out and about (thanks Rick!). Interestingly this isn’t the first time that I’ve seen this grave – it’s funny how these things seem to come back to me from time to time, and it’s a testament to the power of the epitaphs how they can take on a different meaning depending on the circumstances in which you see them.

I wanted to write a little about this epitaph, because although we will of course never know the very personal reasons it was chosen, we can explore the possibilities and by doing so, learn a lot.

It is possible that Herbert’s epitaph was inspired by a quote from a book called ‘Joseph Vance; an Ill-Written Autobiography’ by a chap called William de Morgan. Joseph Vance has been widely forgotten, but at the time of its release in 1906 it was a hugely popular novel in both the UK and USA. In one chapter, the main characters become involved in a debate about life after death and the correlation of ones ‘ghost’ and the physical body..

‘I expressed just now my mistrust of what is called Spiritualism … But I’m going to say a good word for even this sort of thing. I owe it a trifle for a message said to come from Voltaire’s Ghost. It was asked, ‘Are you not now convinced of another world?’ and rapped out, ‘There is no other world – Death is only an incident in Life.’ He was a suggestive Ghost, at any rate. And among other things he suggests that the death of a man might be better described as the birth of a soul.’

This exchange draws on William de Morgan’s personal beliefs. Before William began writing, he was a ceramic artist and life long friend of William Morris (of Strawberry Thief fame) with whom he worked closely. His wife, Evelyn was also a prolific artist and the couple were active in many of the leading debates and issues of the time, including the suffragette and spiritualist movements. William’s mother, Sophia, was heavily involved in spiritualism, her book ‘From Matter to Spirit’ became somewhat of a leading work on the subject and her interest influenced William and Evelyn greatly, with the couple undertaking a long experiment with automatic writing, the results of which they published in 1909. I’ve touched on the rise of spiritualism during the FWW in previous blogs, and though it may be difficult for us to understand the sincere belief many had in this unorthodox religion, another quote from Joseph Vance is worth remembering: ‘the authentic story of one day is the hoax of the next’

If indeed Herbert’s epitaph was inspired by the work of William de Morgan, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume his parents were themselves interested in spiritualism. Considering this, may change how we interpret the epitaph. What seems on the surface to be a rather morose sentiment reflecting an acquiescence to the death of their child, could instead be viewed as an almost optimistic comment on rebirth. The significance of death is diminished as it is regarded as just another event that the spirit transcends, rather than it signifying ‘the end’. Within this, we can understand the important role in the grieving process that a belief in spiritualism had for relatives of the Great War. Often, we fear the finality of death or loss of any kind, but if there is a sincere belief in the loss simply being part of a bigger journey, the pain can be reduced. All of us face difficulties in life, losing loved ones to death or other circumstances can be so destructive, but here in the Silent Cities, an epitaph can provide some comfort and remind us that out of endings often come new beginnings.

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