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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

With regard to yesterday's linked article

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
all those people all those lives
where are they now?
with loves, and hates
and passions just like mine
they were born
and then they lived
and then they died
which seems so unfair
and I want to cry.


(How often are The Smiths quoted on St Blogs?) ‘Cemetery Gates’ is truly the historian’s theme song. Not only is the chorus is a warning against plagiarism; there is also this rather (strangely) beautiful arrow to the heart of why we bother - or at least, why this historian bothers: they were real. Those serfs named once in a twelfth-century charter. Those men slightly too far down the scale to have a seal of their own, borrowing the local laird's seal to attach to an indenture. All my dear families endowing Masses to be said 'in perpetuity.' Those German merchants with their named mis-spelled in Scottish customs records. That agent of the Hanse who killed himself in the late fifteenth century. they were born and then they lived and then they died This does not mean that masses of cells guided by a cocktail-shaker of genes did their thing, wore out their regeneration mechanism, and subsided into their constituent elements. This happened, of course. But what really happened is that real human beings lived real human lives, which are of value whether or not anyone ever paid or pays any attention to them.

The re-use of graves is not a problem in itself. As Eamonn in the comments box noted, in other places it is established practice to transfer bones to charnel houses. Naturally it is fitting to treat the human body with honour, which admits of a diversity of customs; equally naturally, whatever is done to the corpse will not stand in the way of Resurrection. Aquinas pointed out (Supp. q. 71 art. 11) that burial services do not benefit the dead, but rather the living, except inasmuch as burial in a sacred place spurs prayer and suffrages for the dead. In any case, this new London proposal will not involve disturbing bodies as such, which would still be illegal - the novelty applies to graves deep enough that new burials can be made on top.

The disturbing element in the plan reported by the Telegraph seems to me to be the approach to the monuments - 'the names of the dead are simply scoured from the monuments to allow for new inscriptions.' The cemetery reporter defends this as 'it's better to use old English stone that's been quarried already than to use stone that's imported from all parts of the world and does not really fit.' Graves and headstones over seventy-five years old, 'if there are no surviving relatives who object', are candidates for the makeover. Now there is no particular reason why one should be buried with a stone declaring one's name and rank. Monks tend to be buried anonymously; most medieval people could not have afforded a monument. All prayers offered for 'all the faithful departed' will benefit them. 'I don't want to be remembered, I want to be resurrected!' said one friar of my acquaintance. However, deliberately and consciously wiping out the memorials of human creatures seems quite different to not making memorials, and is an offence against the dead. 'Let the memory of him perish from the earth and let not his name be renowned in the streets!' (Job 18:17) '... they shall be utterly laid waste: they shall be in sorrow, and their memory shall perish.' (Wisdom 8:13) Yes, we know that memory among men on earth is not immortality, and that such a pale shadow of immortality is not the only thing to which men may aspire. Nonetheless, to preserve memory is proper and fitting, as the human community - and more certainly still, the communion of saints - extends through time as well as space; indeed, it is necessary for our salvation inasmuch our salvation was wrought in a particular time and place, which must be recalled. Actually to attack the very vehicles of memory is intrinsically inhuman. In the past (indeed, in the present), the wiping out of memory has been employed with this knowledge: forced linguistic change, toppling of monuments, re-writing history and destroying earlier versions.

The London cemetery authorities' plan, however, suggests something almost worse: quite apart from forgetting about prayers for the dead, they seem to think that human memory of human individuals actually does not matter. A seventy-five year gap, with no objecting relatives... Two generations for someone to be forgotten - perfectly likely, especially as families get smaller and local ties weaken. Now there seems to be an implication that once this has happened, the tangible monument has become surplus, useless, meaningless. What connection could the named dead have to a generation who have never known them personally? What is the use of keeping the form of a name of a creature which has long lost its physical existence, and to which no currently-living creature happens to attach subjective value? It seems to me that such concrete attacks on memory imply that the dead do not exist: that there is no real connection between past humans and present humans; that the dead may have been of interest to others who knew them, but have no possible meaning to those who did not; that a gravestone may offer some solace to a certain group of creatures after another creature has disintegrated, but there is nothing actually of value in the mere fact of a human existence which might be conveyed to successive generations by the written fact of a name... We are - the originators of this plan seem to assume - only what we make of ourselves, or what others make of us, and if we are not here to validate ourselves or be affirmed by others, what real connection does our past existence have to the modern world, what use is it to be remembered, what can be contained in the empty shell of memory afforded by a name on a stone?

In short, wiping names off gravestones suggests the loss of a grip on reality: the reality that human beings really exist, and have a real nature and value, whether or not anyone is paying attention.

(You may all think I am over-reading this, in a hysterical historian's way, and I'm not quite sure I've pinned down why the careless willingness to extinguish memory is quite so chilling. All clarificatory suggestions would be most welcome.)