The word grave or tomb seems ominous to me. Maybe too many funerals for me as a child. I was the youngest cousin, my father was the youngest of five and then I the youngest of his children. Sepulcher somehow gives me the possibility that it will open as Jesus says and we will all be raised on the last day. Sepulcher was a popular term for grave in the 16th and 17th centuries and was used on tombstones of which there must be about 50 in the floor in my Béguinage church. Now I have had the definitive tour by the archival sister who knows a lot! A lot of my suppositions were simply wrong! Originally in the 13th century, there was a small Béguinage chapel and a churchyard in which of course béguines and devout persons (many persons!) of the church were buried. They remain (no pun intended) under the present church’s floor. The tombstones in the present day floor are primarily memorials as it was crowded underneath the church floor! There was a fire in 1584 in the church and only one stone in the floor may actually correspond with the remains beneath it.
On my first trip to the Béguinage, I sat in the first row of chairs in the congregation and became intimately acquainted with Octavie Maria Gilliodts, a béguine born in 1819, entering on béguine life at 27 and celebrating her jubilee in 1896. She was memorialized on the stone in the floor beside me. I wondered what Octavie was like? She had been a grootvrouw – what we today would call the Superior or Prioress. Now I sit for rosary in front of a side altar. Here is memorialized Seraphina Catherina de Wulf… She was a béguine in the choir,entering the Princelijk Beggynhof at 21 and made her 50-year jubilee in 1881. I wonder now about her and what was she like? Some of the engraving and writing on the Sepulchers in the church floor is erased; the very large sepulcher stone on the main aisle where communicants walk to eucharist is completely unreadable. In the choir floor which I am always passing to my seat, there are twelve early sepulchers – 1649, 1756, with Latin inscriptions and intricate carvings; one is the last monk of a nearby abbey.
In 1998 during some excavations and renovations, a tombstone which is not in the floor because no place could be found without existing remains underneath, lies above the floor but is of particular interest as it is no doubt a devout couple Godelieve Maertens, a very Flemish name, and Jacob Vlietynck. The date is 1585.
Another interesting footnote is occasionally the tombstone is actually inscribed with what good works for the poor the person did. One explicitly instructs what to do with the remaining finances….on the anniversary of their birthday every year money was to be taken to a certain hospital and used for helping the poor. Bruges was a wealthy town so such sepulchers and bequests were well within the reach of the financially prosperous. As you can see my tombstone tour was definitive and informative. I am definitely in the company of more saints than I thought.