Cadaver stones were often laid over the tombs of the wealthy during the times of the plague (14th and 15th centuries). They are designed to show what happens to our bodies once buried, hence the opened funeral shroud. A number of creatures like newts, frogs, maggots etc can be seen feasting on the rotting flesh. No matter how much wealth a person had or what their status was in life, we are all equal in death. Latin phrases like Memento Mori (remember that you will die) and Memento Vivere (Remember to live) became popular around the same period of time.
Ireland has two fascinating Cadaver stones that must be seen.
The cadaver stone pictured above lies within the St Christopher’s Chapel ruins within Stamullen.
This chapel is next to the ruins of St Patrick’s church and it wasn’t easy to find at first, but Mark found it behind a locked gate and all I could do was peer through the bars and admire it from a distance.
I saw a piece of paper on the floor with a name and a phone number to call for the key and after looking up the details on Google as we couldn’t quite see the phone number, I made the call to a Brendan Matthews who agreed to meet us there and then. I was so excited!
Brendan, a local historian who works at the Drogheda museum was full of historical information about this piece of art and the family of whom it belongs to. It’s very important that information like this is recorded correctly and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to remember everything that he told me. For this reason, I took a photograph of the information sheet that was laminated on the wall nearby so I could replicate here.
St Christopher’s was the family chapel of the Preston family (Viscounts Gormanston), who resided at Gormanston Castle from the late 14th until the mid 20th century. The chapel here dates to the year 1434. The family burial vault of the Preston’s is covered by two interesting tombstones.
The Cadaver stone depicts the decomposing body of a young woman with numerous reptiles and creatures feeding off the corpse. The woman is shown to wear a headdress with the shroud tied back at the head and feet. It is the oldest of only nine cadaver stones found in Ireland and dates to c. 1450. The cadaver stones came into fashion across Europe following the Black Death of the mid 14th century and subsequent plagues.
Cadaver Stone Keeper
Brendan Matthews is the proud caretaker of this lovely piece of art for the current lord. He maintains the area with a bit of weeding and provides information and access to the graveyard for anyone interested. Once finished with the graveyard photography, we ventured out of the enclosure and I pointed out to Brendan a piece of human skull on the Earth.
Following my recent trip to Lincolnshire and now Ireland, I’m getting used to seeing fragments of bones exposed in some of these old graveyards. Brendan picked it up and showed me these two notches on the inside of the skull and told me that it belonged to a man who was above the age of 50 and it was these notches that provided that information. I was in my element chatting to him and I could have spent a whole day with him. Thank you Brendan if you read this post. It was a real pleasure to meet you and you’ve certainly left me with some very fond memories of my trip to Ireland.
These two lovely cadavers can be found at the back of St Peter’s churchyard in Drogheda and we highly recommend you visit.