Further thoughts on the Godlingston Witch Hazel

The flowering witch hazel at Godlingston cemetery

The flowering witch hazel at Godlingston cemetery

Having recorded on my blog yesterday of the late appearance of the blossom of the witch hazel beside the chapel at Godlingston cemetery, Helen and I walked up Northbrook Road yesterday afternoon for our daily exercise, and continued round to the burial ground, to see if the flowers have appeared.  They have.  We also took in what we found to be the extraordinary gravestone in which the tree is planted.  It is a large flat stone covering the grave with a square hole cut in the middle.  So what makes this grave marker so unusual?  Several things.

To begin with, the symbols of the four Evangelists are carved in the four corners: Matthew and Mark at the head end, Luke and John at the feet, as for the child’s prayer for protection at the moment of going to bed*.  All of the carving on the stone is obscured to some degree by lichen, but these symbols, man, lion, ox and eagle are clear enough.  The dates on the stone are in Roman numeral capitals, and the name is John Hunter Lewis.  The dates are difficult to read, but they seem to be 22nd July 1924 to 16th December 1932.  There is a text from Psalm 124: “Escaped as a bird from the snare of a fowler.”  The burden of this psalm is the plea to God for help in crisis.  Think pilgrimage; think journey; think threat; think 1st Peter 5:8, read at the beginning of Compline - the late evening office of the Church.  The family who buried this child knew their Scripture, and their faith in God who protects in the hour of darkness was complete.

So, the square hole was cut in the stone of the burial slab for a reason.  It was cut to symbolically indicate release, and the witch hazel, as Helen pointed out to me, was planted to begin its flowering at the time of child’s death, just before Christmas each year.  Now it is a small tree, and this winter it has flowered late, but as a result I have noticed it afresh, and I shall light a candle for this lad, who died so young, at Morning Prayer today.

John Mann


*Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

Four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head;

One to watch and one to pray

And two to bear my soul away