Wife of the above

Walking around the city I live next to I wandered into a fairly large cemetery that has been there since the mid 19th century, but I didn’t realise it was there.

It was early in the morning and it struck me that it’s a good place for an Autistic person to go for some peace, because people typically won’t go there to have loud parties and even bored teenagers might avoid a cemetery.

As I tried to find some of the oldest graves and noted people buried in the 1870s, where the stones were readable due to the use of metallic lettering. The dates give me a sense of time, and I wonder what the surrounding area was like in 1870. For one thing the large “box” stores on one boundary would not have been there, or most of the surrounding suburban estates.

While I was interested in some of the patterns of lichens and weathering, I noticed something about the way in which spouses are mentioned, and here’s one example.

Emma’s lettering seems to be a different colour

The phrase stood out – “wife of the above”. My feminist sense had been sharpened this week by reading an article about ingrained sexism around touch here – perhaps something to comment on another time, but the main point is that it made me feel somewhat sickened.

Here in front of me was another baked in element of sexism. In death these women have the main distinguishing feature of having been a man’s wife. Perhaps there was a bit to say about Emma’s 13 years after George died. Even modern epitaphs keep describing women as having been a great mother or “nan” and I passed one or two of those.

Another woman called Bithiah had her own gravestone, and even then she had been described as being somebody’s wife on her death in 1911. On another stone a woman named Mary was described as the “Tenderly loved and true hearted wife of” a navy commander – with his name prominently below and it didn’t seem like this is his grave as well. I can’t help thinking how this makes her also a higher status “wife-of-navy-commander”.

Why couldn’t gravestones say something else about these women’s lives? Perhaps they loved to play the piano or grow flowers. Yet here they are – “wife of the above”.