Thursday, 5 April 2012


King's Lynn
© Godric Godricson
The imagery of Resurrection is a recurring theme in Christian art. Unsurprisingly, the Resurrection is a theme that we encounter repeatedly in the graveyard and has special significance at Easter time. Christians repeat the motif of life after like a mantra. It is as if we are all being persuaded and cajoled to see this life as nothing more than a trial for the ‘other’ life.

This ‘other’ life becomes the goal and it is not a surprise if life becomes nothing more than a prelude. The graveyard becomes a cultic phenomena where we gather as a family and as a community to bury the departed and set them on their journey. We say the prayers that will sooth their soul and we implore a suicidal God to look after the departed. We take part in a ‘wake’ or a feast for the soul and whilst we do not  pour a libation onto the ground, we often have a drink to commemorate the dead.

The Resurrection that is preached in the Church is fervently hoped for in the graveyard and the bodies are stacked and layered in hopeful expectation. The proximity of the dead to the living has been seen as a positive feature and the vaults below the Church are a sort of status symbol. The local ruling family were always present in the Church as there were often three generations attending services above ground and many more generations present a few inches below the stone flagged floors.

The living and the dead of the parish were an organic  unity and the living were always able to ask for the intercession of the dead. Now, the intercession of the dead for the living and the living for the dead has always been seen as a good thing. However, this concept seems to be on thin scriptural evidence and seems more like a sort of ‘cultic thing’ where we call on the ancestors for their help. I'm unsure how this is a very Christian concept at all. The idea of calling on my grandmother who has died and gone ahead seems a strange thing when at the same time we in the West denigrate people in Africa for animism and unscriptural practises. Now, I'm sure that both my grandmothers would not refuse me their assistance but is it healthy for a society to build a religion that allows me to call on the departed rather than the living? The cult of the dead seems rooted in our society. The memorial to ancestors in the graveyard confirms our cultural attachment to bones and also to what has been called 'blood in the soil'. The departed in the Earth confirm our identity and some English people have contemporary reverence for ancient martyrs and Saxon saints. The site of the death of King Harold still has resonance for some people and this is the idea of special and holy places playing out in the popular imagination. That Christianity has often taken such sites for itself is perhaps an indication that previous generations understood the specialness of places, events and people and sought to contain that power. Graveyards next to Churches are a way of controlling people as the Church could exclude as much as it included. Unmarried mothers, unbaptised children and the criminal were often excluded unless the people could find a way of subverting the will of the Church.
The Christian God and an association with death is strong and we can see that there is more than a reference to the ancient Gods that die and rise again, Such ancient cults and ancient religions have parallels with modern Christianity. Modern Christians will say that their faith has nothing to do with Osiris of Egypt or the Celtic Gods that wilt and die with the coming of winter and yet we can see parallels that will not go away. Yes, I would agree with contemporary Christians that there are differences. Osiris remains in the world of the dead rather than meeting and greeting his disciples. Osiris does not move and exist in the same plane of existence after his own sort of resurrection. However, Osiris does continue and he does continue to exist in the Kingdom of the dead.  Christians often become quite apoplectic with rage when it is suggested that they have an association with Osiris although for me it is evident that Jesus (as the second person of the Triune God) is a sort of new Osiris for his followers even if slightly different and changed ever so slightly in emphasis by time and culture.

The place where our ancestors are buried is a special place. Even if we will not rest in that place ourselves,  we often know where it is. We sometimes visit ‘gran’ and we know the reason she is buried there.   It is a place for a sort of sanitised ancestor worship. The English may not clap and dance and sing and pour a libation for the dead although we often speak to our grandparents ever so quietly when we go to places they also visited. I have seen people reverently touch headstones  as if they were touching the departed and I have heard people in graveyards speak as if the person were there beside them. So strong is the cult of the dead that we hold commemoration services in graveyards and we rebury the departed when road widening changes the shape of the graveyard and disturbs the bones. Archaeological work is often forbidden in graveyards and when we find bones  there is usually a chaplain on site. So, strong is the attachment to the graveyard that they have become places of occasional pilgrimage and recollection.

In the 21st century, the Christian God who was so well known to our ancestors has become a sort of forgotten God and the association of this God and death are forgotten. God has a continuing place in society but because we no longer feel close to God we have forgotten some of his ways, preferences and 'aspects'; we have forgotten the faces of God. The God we worship at Easter and commemorate at Christmas is the same God of the birth and of the harvest and he is also the God of the dead. We knew this to be true in the past although we have developed a sort of cultural amnesia.

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