Monday, 4 June 2012


His Majesty George VI
Buried : St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle
It’s the Diamond jubilee weekend in the UK and its difficult to avoid  Royalty and the Royal family. This blog isn’t interested in Monarchy as such although we do learn about burials and tombs from the experience of historical personalities.

It may seem strange to consider the death and burial of His Majesty George VI at a time of national celebration although this juxtaposition is not a surprise. After all, we live in a culture where the Resurrection is celebrated after a time of reflective mourning and Easter is part of the teachings of the Established Church. The tombs of the famous and infamous still feature in our lives for positive and negative reasons.

We can also compare and contrast a life of service evidenced by His Majesty George VI  and the sometimes dubious ministry of senior clergy. Despite claiming for themselves piety and religious honour clergy around the world have recently come in for criticism for demonstrating venal lives far from the example of  duty evidenced in the life of  George VI. In modern times, even the tombs of senior clergy are considered capable of being used for illegal purposes. Mechelen Cathedral in Belgium experienced the unusual situation whereby the tombs of two Cardinals (Suenens and Van Roey)  were pierced and a camera inserted to see whether there were any hidden documents relating to the Roman Catholic Churches abuse of vulnerable children. The issue of paedophile priests has become such a pressing issue that even the tombs of Cardinals are searched. Eternity and the meaning of eternity is something to be considered and reflected upon as the inscrutable power of the Church is continuously peeled away to reveal what was once the uncomfortable secret of institutional abuse. How far have the clergy strayed from their pathway.

As we consider Royal tombs, we also reflect upon  “Dealings with the Dead- 1852” and how the Sexton views the idea of tombs from an historical perspective. The Sexton who wrote the book is clearly not in favour of burials in Churches and he dislikes the building of tombs in Churchyards, especially in urban areas close to populations. In the 19th century we witness a common sense connection between odour and ‘miasma’ theory or the association of stench with disease. Tombs are bad news.

Thomas Matthews
All Saints - Newton by Castleacre

© Godric Godricson
For the sexton,  writing in 1852, the best way of disposing of a body was to lay it in the Earth where the soil would deal with the stench of decomposition and leave the environment safe.  The option of tombs was not to be endured as  they were associated with disease. The association between stench, disease and the tomb is clear and strong and the book leaves room for no other message.

Despite the words of the Sexton, we experience an affinity between Royalty and tombs. The British have the necropolis of Westminster Abbey and France had Saint Denis in Paris. The Belgian Royal family have the Royal Crypt situated in the church of Notre-Dame de Laeken etc etc etc. There is clearly something  going on in this association of burials and Royalty and it isn’t anything to do with health and hygiene. We have already looked at the association of burials in the Christian context. The cult of death and tombs very much fit into the Christian death cult. Tombs are the world of the dead where sad dirges can be sung and where a death focused religion can have its dark places away from the sun. The mouldy drapes can hang around the coffin and priests can wade through the human dust in another service. The cult of the dead strengthened the message that the closer the body then so much the better and the Royal tombs of Europe are paradoxically close to the people whilst also being separated from the people. The tomb under the Church floor and in front of the altar means that the personality of the deceased is always there as a reminder to the living and the dead live forever in the memory and popular conception. Too strong a message?  well, that could be true although a secondary theme in this posting is a sort of ancestor worship. We witness a sort of ancestor worship with the Stracey family at Rackheath where the family used the parish Church a sort of genealogical chart for some generations before they finally left the areas and ceased to be associated with Rackheath.  

Henry Hardinge Denne Stracey
All Saints - Rackheath

© Godric Godricson
 The parish Church at Rackheath was gradually turned into a funerary chapel. For Royalty, the theme of ancestor worship is so much stronger and rather than a family genealogy we are dealing with the governance of a nation. The illustrious dead form part of national history and Kings and princes are there as markers in time and through the passing of time. Ancestors become  part of a cultic centre where the monuments record the earlier generation and claim the future both in blood and art. The monuments feature as a marker of the place of burial  and mark the passing of  time. So much more for Royalty than for the local land owning family.

Whilst all rich families could own land and perpetuate a dynasty of sorts; the problem with tombs is that they can be opened both for the addition of new bodies and for the stealing of others. The Sexton tells us of the atrocities that can happen even in New England in the increasingly  rational 19th century and its worse when we consider the fate of Royal tombs. Saxon Kings are buried and exhumed only to be boxed and stored in Winchester cathedral to be thrown around in the time of Cromwell’s  Republic. The fate of Cromwell is symptomatic of what happens to leaders that fall out of favour. We find Cromwell being disinterred and ritually executed before being unceremoniously dumped.

His Majesty King James II & VII 
(1633 - 1701)
James II and VII of England and Scotland was originally buried at the Chapel of St Edmund administered by the English Benedictines at Rue St. Jacques, Paris before being disinterred at the time of the French revolution. So much for the holy precincts of the Church which cannot protect the Royal dead from  the ravages of time and the changing tides of history. The illustrious Stuart Prince is scattered to the four winds and is nowhere to be found. Later Stuart claimants to the throne found their way to the Vatican for burial although they are now subject to the tender mercies of the Roman Catholic Church. I doubt if Royal Stuart tombs will be subject to as much scrutiny as more recent Cardinals. Various Monarchs and Royals have been buried at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle although even here (and in more modern times) we find that there have been ‘clear outs’ of the vaults with remains re-interred at Frogmore, so much for eternity in one place. If we have learnt anything from the Saxon Monarchs then it is that eternity is a movable feast rather than a fact. The occupants of a tomb hope for immortality although they are at the mercy of the living and the aspirations of the wealthy and sometimes of the nouveau riche.

The Sexton admonishes us against reliance on the alleged security of the tomb and against the storage of the dead above ground. It is clear that such practices are never for the majority and only for a small fraction of the population. It is also clear that tombs leave the dead open to disrespect and violation. They are no guarantee of eternity or of fidelity.

Although this posting has focused on the tomb; the real message of the jubilee weekend is about  the celebration of a long reign completed with honour and dignity.

This blog is also a time to consider the place of ancestry, community memory and monuments to the past. This blog is a space where we reflect on the past and we contemplate the meaning of genealogy, burials and funerals.

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