06 December 2015

Grave matters: Ivy

Ivy seems almost to be ubiquitous in cemeteries. Either you’ll find it carved into the stone of a grave marker as decoration, or it will be smothering that same headstone so you can no longer read the details of who’s buried beneath, or both!

As you might easily deduce, when the evergreen and almost indestructible ivy is used as a decorative element on a headstone it is intended to symbolise immortality and eternal life, and perhaps also rebirth and regeneration – just think how resilient a plant ivy is and how, even when you think you’ve removed every last piece of it from a stone wall, it soon reappears as if by magic. Some people believe ivy is also symbolic of friendship, faithfulness and fidelity.

The plant itself can be seen both as a blessing and a curse in a cemetery. On the positive side, it is an important plant for the environment, providing nectar and berries, shelter and nesting places for insects, birds, bats and other beasties. A covering of ivy is also thought to protect monumental stonework from weather erosion. On the negative side, however, the roots of ivy can creep between gaps in stonework causing grave monuments and headstones to crack and become unstable; its weight can cause similar instabilities; it frequently covers headstone inscriptions making them impossible to read; and if inexpert attempts to remove ivy can lead to further headstone damage.

How to deal with ivy is an issue for all authorities who have responsibility for heritage buildings and monuments, not just those in charge of cemeteries. One of the problems is that ivy can usually only be effectively eradicated through the use of herbicides and many heritage authorities have policies not to use chemicals within their grounds.

I don’t have the answers to the problems caused by ivy so I’ll let that literary master Charles Dickens have the last word here. This is the poem that appeared in his novel, Pickwick Papers, which was originally published in serial form between March 1836 and November 1837.

‘The Ivy Green’

Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o’er ruins old!
Of right choice food are his meals, I ween,
In his cell so lone and cold.
The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,
To pleasure his dainty whim:
And the mouldering dust that years have made
Is a merry meal for him.
        Creeping where no life is seen,
        A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
And a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings,
To his friend the huge Oak Tree!
And slily he traileth along the ground,
And his leaves he gently waves,
As he joyously hugs and crawleth round
The rich mould of dead men’s graves.
        Creeping where grim death has been,
        A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant, in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise,
Is the Ivy’s food at last.
        Creeping on, where time has been,
        A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

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