Momento memori : The book of the dead

Momento memori : The book of the dead

October 3, 2018 7 By Shan Ellis Williams

It was customary in Victorian times, especially in the middle and upper classes, to take photos of those who passed over. The photo was thought to house the soul of the deceased, before they moved on to wherever departed souls go. Momento mori, literally translated “remember that you have to die”, were usually treasured items. These books were kept as heirlooms and the Victorians recognised that we humans were transient. We were expendable. Death was natural and inevitable.

It was very common for babies to die, and to have photos taken with their siblings, loving grandparents cradling children lovingly in their arms as they would in life.

Somehow taking photos of their nearest and dearest before they went cold kept them alive and well in their memories. I often think if people browsed through these photo albums which in this day and age seem macabre and horrific. Maybe referring to old uncle Albert who died of the flu, and keeping their memories alive in the memories of their children. Some of whom might listen attentively to stories of people they’d never met, but stared ardently at their last remaining black and white stills. I had one very strange encounter with one of these books. Sit back and relax, and I shall tell you a little story. Now I love a bit of creepy, but it isn’t so nice when it happens to be happening to you. There is nothing wrong with spooking yourself out reading a bit of creepypasta and who knows, this story is true. But you might want to leave the light on to read it!

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Book of Death

In 2003, I bought my first house. It was in an area I’d never considered as a home. But being a few months pregnant with my first child we were very excited to get settled in. I wasn’t moving very far, only a few miles. Waving goodbye to the top of my mountain to head to sunnier climes down in the valley. The house was more than I’d hoped for. Two up two down, which I’d saved up for with teaching. The previous owner had renovated it quite extensively so it had that quaint but homely feel.

I didn’t know much about my mother’s side of the family. Or more rightly so I hadn’t asked. My fathers large, sprawling relatives all over the world brood had always been louder and more exotic. So imagine my surprise when, whilst having a chat with my mother’s cousin, who has since passed over himself, he informed me that my mothers great grandfather lived in the house I had bought.

I shirked it off as coincidence at the time. The house required painting, and as with many new houses, there was a mysterious leak in the roof that needed to be investigated. Undeterred, one morning when I was on holidays for work I decided to venture up into the attic to see if I could spot a leak. I love a good attic rummage when I can get up there, and the previous owners had left quite a few bits up there which was surprising. I couldn’t resist having a nosey.

Family ties

The story my uncle told me never really entered my head as I switched on my torch. Our family had ties, quite strong ones actually to the village where we had relocated. My grandmother was born and raised in a house called Ty Mawr, in the village of Talysarn. Her father had become very comfortable being the foreman in a local quarry. His father however had lived with 23 children in the house that I had bought. He outlived three wives, and ten of those aforementioned kids. Not strange for the time. Life was hard. Quarrying for slate was a perilous past time. And the Welsh gold in the mountains of my birth laid claim to many lives young and old.

The attic was a complete treasure trove. Old Christian etchings taken from the closing of a local church. One depicting the fall of Delilah another was Adam and Eve about to munch the fruit of wisdom. These two were huge, about my height, and I wondered how on earth they had fitted the etchings through the miniscule attic hatch. There was a lovely old gilt mirror up there which I decided to bring down for our bedroom. And a box of nicknacks, a toby jug and old coins, and a book which I placed to one side for safe keeping, to bring down with me for evening reading.

I was very happy to learn that the floor had been planked and I could spot where the rain was coming in along the breast of what would have been the old chimney. The seam of the house and next door. Satisfied I could give dad a full report without him having to venture up here I grabbed the box and headed on down.

Not a book

The box of delights yielded more than I could ever imagine. As I emptied it onto the sofa, I studied he coins, my father collects old coins and to my surprise, in the box was a farthing, a penny blackĀ and an old groat. Beneath this box was a pair of ornate babies booties, knitted with wool so thin and fine they were a piece of art. I wonder to this day why someone would just leave these things behind when they moved. Little things are so precious. There was also a tiny silver rattle and comb set. Very old and very beautiful.

I turned my attention to the book, and was surprised to see an inscription on the cover. Teulu Ty Mawr 1786. Ty Mawr family 1786. I immediately phoned my mother. This book belonged to her family, and as I spoke on the phone I turned the first page. Behind it was tissue paper, yellowed, but it was what I could see through the tissue that had me hooked. I asked my mother if I could phone her back. Peeling back the tissue paper, there was a sepia coloured photograph. A child asleep in a pram. A beautiful blonde haired baby, and in its hand, the rattle I’d just held in my hands.

The following photos showed a huge family, all around the sleeping baby in its pram. A few with the children holding the baby. It was only then I noticed, that the baby slept on through all photos. And its head was bent a funny angle when one of the elder siblings held it tight to her chest like a doll. The child had passed over.

book of the dead

hush little baby don’t say a word…

I had a very rudimentary camera phone at the time, and tried to send my mother a photo of the pages. None of these would turn out. They wouldn’t be sent, the MMS refused to send, the photo would be too blurry, or my mother would receive a black square on her mobile phone, or a download link saying so and so have tried to send you a photo please download from the internet. So I tried my quite expensive SLR. Same. Black photo, big blur. It was really strange, the book just didn’t want to be photographed.

So, I decided to place it in my bag and take it up there. Every time I arrived at my mothers’ having packed the book safely in my bag, it was gone. Three times I tried, and each time, the book would be back on the sofa where I had left it. I started to feel like I was losing it. Seriously I’d make sure the book was in my bag and voila after a ten minute drive, it was gone.

I never worked out why the book didn’t want to leave. Maybe our house was its resting place. But it didn’t want to come with me when I left in 2010 either. It stayed right where it was, back in the attic. I think it felt like it belonged there. We had many happy years in that small house. But even terraced houses have their secrets. And that gorgeous leather bound book, wanted to remain just where it was found. At home.

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