Wednesday, 18 July 2012

“This man lived in the tombs” Mark 5:3

Preaching a Christian message
close to the tomb
© Godric Godricson
This man lived in the tombs” is the start of this passage in the Gospel according to Mark. This passage talks about insanity, exclusion from society and ‘madness’. Whilst I want to move away from ideas of demon possession which itself is a strange thing for contemporary Christianity to teach, I want to look at the idea of people living amongst the dead now and in the past.

It is never a point of honour to live amongst the dead and humanity tends to have various injunctions on living amongst the dead. For Mark’s Gospel, there is an affinity between madness and this living with the dead. We can always become a little allegorical about the ideas of ‘death’ means. Is Mark’s idea of death physical death or is it about waiting for new life. This isn’t the discussion I want to have. My  thought’s on this are the  ways in which the living have come into contact with the dead and share the same physical space. For Mark, the demoniac is living amongst the bones of the dead and is eating and sleeping there as a regular event. Living in the tombs is normally abhorrent to humanity and something to be avoided.

Houses and the dead compete
for space in North Walsham
© Godric Godricson
The living and the dead in Europe have come into close contact for many tears and the older towns (such as North Walsham in Norfolk) have many examples of this proximity as the population of Europe grew and the population become ever more demanding of space and as they they required burial according to tradition. Europe’s tendency to have insanitary and filthy burial traditions are seen in the research of Edwin Chadwick in the 1840’s whereby he explored and analysed the tendency to re-use the same burial  place over many generations. There was no end to the people who wished to be buried in the Church of their ancestors turning such places into an ancestral shrine. No end of people turned the aisle of Churches into a funerary park as at Saint Augustine The Less in Bristol. The rich  displayed their wealth and connections in death as in life. Death became paraded in front  of the living on a daily basis and we now have no way of understanding the effect this had on popular imagination and sensibilities. The ossuary at St Leonard’s Church in Hythe contains huge quantities of human remains and around 2000 skulls. Its likely that this wasn’t unusual in Europe although many of the remains around Britain will have been cleared away and buried in the reforms of the 19th Century. The collection of bones is touching on the dead as part of community ancestor worship and this doesn’t seem to be part of the Gospels.


One marble slab away from the dead
© Godric Godricson
For the Priest, we may only guess at the effect of having the dead under your feet whilst you engage in an active ministry. The feet of the living standing above the bones of the rich and infamous must have an emotional effect. I understand that 21st century feelings of appropriateness have changed from that of the 19th century although I do sometimes reflect on how it must have felt. What effect did it have on the priest to know that the departed were just one thickness of marble away from his feet? How does this proximity affect the preaching of the Gospel and what is the effect on the congregation to know that the rich and famous are always in the sanctuary area of the Church?
The proximity of the living and the dead largely came to an end in the mid 19th Century with the Municipal Burials Act in 1857. This ensured a more hygienic way of disposing of the dead. There was an end to new tombs in Churches and if there were still the occasional burial then the body had to be embalmed and contained in a lead coffin. Hygiene became more of an emphasis as the population became aware of disease as opposed to miasma theory and fear of emanations and exhalations. Death had become something to be separated from the living rather than to co-exist with the living. In Europe, humanity had begun to separate itself from the dead although this was probably a process that was not immediate even with legislative changes.

Thomas Matthews Died 30th April 1883
All Saints, Newton by Castle Acre
© Godric Godricson
 Whilst the living and the dead parted company some years ago in Europe, there wasn’t the same segregation in developing countries. Egypt with a history of poverty has a significant history of co-existence with the dead and the Philippines similarly has a growing community living in over crowded poverty. Whilst Europe has been allowed to part company from the dead we find the developing world being compelled to coexist in a detestable manner based on poverty and population migrations to the City. Europe and North America has turned cemeteries into parks for recreation and for cultural pursuits. 


Modern use of cemeteries around the world means that we find people living in tombs in the modern age with no sign of this disappearing.  Regrettably, humanity still lives in tombs and scrounges an existence amongst the dead.

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