Unschool Cemetery Maths


The mist drifts across the field and through the cemetery. Together with the rising sun, it streams between the trees and onto the graves. Golden rays fall upon a black marble monument which rises high, taller than the surrounding stones. I stop in front of this memorial pillar, shivering in the cold morning air. My eyes scan the words inscribed upon it. and, immediately, my brain moves up a gear. Without any encouragement from me, it starts manipulating the numbers, ordering the facts and figures.

Mary Ellsmore died in 1900 when she was 34. I do some mental subtraction and discover she was born in 1866.

Working forwards: 1866 + 34= 1900. Yes, I was right.

She was born in one century and died at the beginning of another.

Imagine dying at 34. That’s young. Mary’s two sons died at even younger ages. One was hardly more than a baby when he was buried beneath this stone. The other was only a little boy. I wonder if their mother died of a broken heart.

Adrian was only 1 year and 8 months old when he died. Thomas died when he was 6 years and 10 months old. Who was the elder brother? I’m guessing Thomas was born first because he bears his father’s name. (Wasn’t that the tradition in those days?) But I work it out to make sure.

Thomas junior died in 1896 when he was almost 7. (I round up his age.) So he was probably born in 1889:

1896 – 7 = 1889

Adrian died in 1893 when he was 2. (Again, I round up his age.) So most likely, he was born in 1891:

1893 – 2 = 1891

There is no mention of any more children. Was Mary’s grief never softened by the birth of another baby? And what was the cause of her death? It’s not recorded. I can only imagine.

Was Thomas Ellsmore senior devastated when he buried his wife after also burying two sons? Was he shocked when he found himself alone? Perhaps he never anticipated being a widower. He probably never expected to outlive Mary. I see from the inscription that he was older than his wife. How much older?

Thomas died in 1942 when he was 93 years old. (A ripe old age. Was that unusual for those times?)

1942 – 93 = 1849

Is that right? I mentally do the problem another way to check:

1942 – 100 = 1842
1842 + 7 = 1849

Now Mary was born in 1866.

1866 – 1849 = 17

Or doing it an easier way:

66 – 50= 16
16 + 1 = 17

Maybe when Mary married Thomas she expected one day to be a widow. She’d live longer than her older husband. But that’s not the way it turned out.

I stand, deep in thought, wondering about the Ellsmore story. So much grief inscribed into very few words. So much we don’t know.

But I did find out the bare bones of the story by doing some mental adding and subtracting. I didn’t set out to do the maths. I just couldn’t help myself. My mind wanted to know more.

Addition, subtraction, centuries, years, months, rounding up, age, dates, births and deaths…

There is a lot of maths in a cemetery. And there are a lot of stories too.

Here’s another one:

We have our very own maths cemetery story:

Thomas Augustine Elvis died on 10th November 1999 when he was one day old. This means we celebrate his birthday each year on November 9th.

2016 – 1999 = 17

This year Thomas would have been 17 years old. Despite the maths being correct, that’s hard to believe.

So what were we doing in a misty cemetery last Friday morning as the sun was rising? Team Elvis was recording another music video. My daughter Imogen sang Wish You Were Somehow Here Again, a song from The Phantom of the Opera. Our son Thomas is included in the last scene. He may no longer be here, but he is still part of the story.

So next time you visit a cemetery, wander among the graves, read the inscriptions, imagine the stories behind the words as you do some unschool maths.

And if you feel inclined, if you believe, say a prayer.

This post started life as one of my Raw Files, Strange Goings-On in the Cemetery, on my other unschooling blog.

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  1. Reply

    We have done similar things, but you have done a beautiful job of expressing the way it feels to wonder and imagine these life stories behind the numbers.

    1. Reply


      Fascinating stories can be hiding behind numbers. I love wondering and imagining. I see you do too! Thank you so much for visiting our cemetery with me!

  2. Reply

    We do the same thing often at the cemetery behind our house. This was such a beautiful post and a wonderful tribute to those who have gone on before us, including your precious Thomas.

    1. Reply


      It's good to see you blogging again!

      You have a cemetery behind your house? I'd love to live closer to the cemetery. We love wandering amongst the graves. I think it's a very beautiful and peaceful place. Of course, I'd love to be nearer Thomas too!

      Thank you so much for your kind comment.

  3. Reply

    Stories and numbers everywhere, your mental maths is sharper than mine! I would have weaved a story and ignored the maths!! Tell a child often enough that they are no good at maths and they start to believe it! Including Thinas was not only very moving but absolutely right. Him dying at the hour of mercy so precious xx

    1. Reply

      Excuse typo, using phone keypad and it is way past my bedtime!!

    2. Reply


      You'd probably weave a better story than the one hidden behind the numbers. Sometimes it's good to let our imaginations run wild and ignore the maths facts!

      I was so pleased Imogen wanted to include Thomas in her video. The hour of mercy… We didn't find out the time of Thomas' death until we were given the clothes he was wearing after he died. His name and time of death were recorded on a tag attached to his gown. When I found out that Thomas died at 3 pm, it was like receiving a gift. Very special. xx

  4. Reply

    Cemetery matsh, yes we do so too. Plus we always wonder about the strange/funny/absurd names people have been given. We lived in Germany for a year, and often visited the small cemetrey in our willage, reading the inscriptions, and getting to know the history of our small community.

    1. Reply


      We also wonder about names. Some inscriptions include nicknames too. Years ago, it seems it was the custom, if a baby died, to give that child's name to the next baby, and if he/she died, the name was passed on to a third child… It makes tracing family history very confusing! Oh yes, lots of history inscribed into headstones!

  5. Reply

    Beautiful post and tribute to your Thomas. Prayers your way always… what a beautiful family. You are so blessed and gifted. Thank you for sharing dear Sue….

    1. Reply


      It's been a while since I wrote a story about Thomas. It was lovely to include him in this one. I was so pleased when Imogen told me she wanted to end her video at Thomas' grave.

      Thank you for your prayers and words of love. I will keep your family in my prayers. I am blessed indeed. So grateful for kind friends like you! xx

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