Thursday, 3 May 2012

Aristocracy of the dead

Aristocracy of the dead
The tombs of the rich are often to be admired and marvelled at and then walked past as we consign their memory to temporary oblivion and that is arguably as it should be. The joy of English parish Churches is that there is much that is ordinary and 'in the vernacular'. England doesn’t have much in the cemetery that is showy and brash. That would never do! Instead, England has the sandstone stele monument or the Celtic/Cornish granite headstone that marks the seasons by referencing the moss and gentle decay whilst very slowly mouldering into the soil. On the Continent, it is very different and monuments seem to have surpassed the life of the individual they commemorate. The monument is greater than the man

Just as the venerable Sexton in “Dealings with the Dead” (1856) is clear that there is an aristocracy of the dead, it also clear that the English have maintained a fine and traditional indifference towards monuments and remained, instead, happy to provide either a low monument or no monument at all. The grass and the wildlife seem enough for us as we are gently layered into the ground to await our fate. There are clearly some grand monuments and the one at Saint Remigius at Hethersett is a great favourite of mine as it stands by the edge of the field as if about to escape into the landscape. There are great monuments in Churches and we all recognise the marble plaques about to crush us in their monumentality if they were ever to fall from their walls. They say much and also tell us nothing about the person they commemorate and, in reality, the large plaques aren’t very English at all.


Commemorated in Valetta
© Godric Godricson

Englishness is about recognising wealth, power and privilege and then doing absolutely nothing about it. Englishness is about understanding social prestige and admiring that prestige before going to the supermarket and buying beer for the hot summer we all hope for. It is that in the end we are really quite casual about titles and honours and we are also quite aware that the exteriors doesn’t always match the interior. The grand lady, wrapped in furs,  may be starving from a lack of breakfast and the great lord may have threadbare socks. Not everything is as it seems in this world or the next. The great monument may be built of shoddy materials and the lettering on the stone may be mispelt through ignorance or haste. The English understand these possibilities and naturally sneer at aristocracy whether that aristocracy is in blood, monuments or the grave. It’s all so much flim-flam at the end of the day.

Rural parish Church in North Norfolk
© Godric Godricson
 The tombs of the rich are admired that much is true although the English do not worship long at any one altar and we do not marvel over much at any one tomb. We do not over monumentalise the folly of human lives and we do not often deify the departed. It is hard to worship at a tomb when the occupant of the tomb was as mortal as us and had the same foibles and follies. So, let people have their aristocracy in the grave and have their 30 seconds of adulation as we walk past before we walk away and forget them until the next visit along with the next sunrise.

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