During the couple of days before visiting Durham a couple of news stories had come my way. People were getting stunningly enraged about similar activities. And I wasn't. I was thinking that their rage was pretty daft and I couldn't see the problem.
News story one: People were sometimes dressing up and having their pictures taken in an old graveyard. Other people were shocked and dismayed? How could anyone disrespect the dead in this way? How could anyone be so dreadful that they would do this terrible thing? I wasn't shocked or dismayed at all. Instead I thought it was wonderful. People were enjoying themselves. Nobody was being harmed. Great. And they were bringing life and celebration and happiness into a place of death.
News story two: Some children had been photographed lying in an old stone coffin, with their hands in a praying position as if they were corpses placed that way centuries ago. People were shocked and dismayed. The outcry on Facebook was great, far greater than it would have been if those children were photographed lying dead in the sea having drowned when their boat full of suffering refugees sank. Okay, I might be a bit cynical. But I might be right too. How dare children do this? And how dare adults encourage children to do something so awful? And there were lots of comments too along the lines of "This would never have happened in my day. What is the world coming to? This generation are being brought up terribly."
I saw the offending photo and I thought it was really nice. Children playing. Being children. Sweet. And then I thought, "Hang on, haven't I seen something like this already?" And of course I had. A photograph of myself and my brother, taken when we were maybe about ten years old, probably younger. We were lying down in two stone coffins. Pretending to be centuries old dead people. And at least one of us had our hands in that praying position. Yes, it's true. We were that awful! Our parents were that awful! And we were the precursor to this terrible generation of children! We were part of the end of civilisation.
Except of course we weren't awful. We were just having fun. We played. We didn't disrespect dead people by having fun. I rather suspect that if those dead people in their graves could have sat up and watched us they would have had a good laugh and thought it great that children and families could have a good time even in such a place as a graveyard.
Those were the two stories. Fresh in my memory. And one phrase stuck out above the others because it had been spoken so often about both stories: It's sacred. You have to treat it a certain way because it's sacred. You have to act with due decorum around anything related to death. Because it's sacred. So treat graves and graveyards like this. It's THE way. The ONLY way. Those places are sacred to the memory of people. That was said. On TV. On social media. Sacred to the Memory.
And I was in Durham looking for a quiet cafe in which to have a drink before heading for home. I'd walked up a road that led up from the shopping street. A sign pointed up to a cafe and when I got there I decided that I wouldn't go there. There didn't seem anything wrong with the cafe and I don't know why I didn't drink there. Indecisiveness and the difficulty of making any decisions when overwhelmed and, if I'm honest, quite close to melting down or shutting down or somehow managing to combine the two in an impossible way. Later I would be very glad that I had walked away from that cafe because I found another cafe that I loved.
Opposite the cafe that I didn't use was a church. This was St. Margaret's. I want to go back and explore the church building. Parts of it date from the twelfth century and there's a lot to see. When I was there a small choir were inside practising some sacred music. I'm sure they wouldn't have minded me doing the full tourist thing inside and I was feeling fragile and didn't want to disturb them too much. Exploration of the building can wait for another day. It's been there for 850 years. So I expect it'll still be there for me even if I don't return until next year.
On the far side of the churchyard is a gate. And something within me piped up and said, "I wonder where that leads." Sometimes you just have to go through gates. And sometimes they lead to places that you would rather never have visited. Other times they lead into wonderment and excitement and a place where Clare is happy and flappy and totally grateful to have explored.
Through the gate. Completely away from any tourist route in Durham. I hadn't liked the Cathedral. But the river was pleasing. The little church of St. Margaret was pleasing. And now I was to be very pleased indeed.
Through the gate I found graves. And more graves. And a large graveyard. And it was amazing.
The two news stories came back to me and those comments. You can't do that. You can't disrespect the dead. You can't PLAY near graves. It's horrific. All those comments. And one comment in particular came back to me when I passed what was almost the first of the grave stones.
Sacred to the memory of ...
Because there were those words, on a grave.
Sacred to the memory of. Sacred?
What does that mean for the site. Does that mean that all graves and all gravestones should be treated with solemnity for the rest of history? Does it mean that we should not disturb the sites, leave them in situ until the end of time?
If it's a heinous sin to photograph a child in a coffin or an adult by a gravestone, then why isn't this a heinous sin too:
All those stones. Dug up. Ripped away from their associated corpses. And buried so deep that only half the inscriptions are legible. What do our attitudes mean when this is acceptable but a fun snapshot is an outrage?
I walked further and had a choice. I could either walk to the right of the wall, into open space with grass and pretty trees and graves in places through the whole quite massive churchyard. Or I could walk to the left of the wall, down a path that probably wasn't really meant to be a path - or at least was becoming very overgrown and forgotten. That way led into the woods and the wall continued to be lined with graves.
I took a decision. Getting good at decisions now. I may not be able to decide where to have a quick drink. But I could manage to decide how to explore a graveyard. By then I was feeling very happy and was loving being there. If I hadn't wandered through a gateway and past some houses I would never have found this place of wonder.
Yes. The graves continued. Ripped from their original sites. Separated from those people they were sacred to the memory of. Buried. And neglected. I quite like neglected grave sites. In these places life triumphs. Death is not the end. How can it be when there is so much abundance of life even in the dead places?
Further up the path it became increasingly overgrown - and there was no exit at the far end. I loved it. I loved the atmosphere, the light through the trees, the smell of the victorious nature. These sacred sites were still sacred. Perhaps far more sacred for being swallowed up in that victory.
I couldn't help wondering though why people would be so enraged by those photographs of fun when nobody was being enraged by realities such as this:
Again, Sacred to the Memory of ...
I looked up from the victorious life around the stones. And I saw even more victorious life. The trees of the wood, perhaps holding more wisdom than anything in that place. The tree looked down upon me and said "In this moment all is at peace." Peace. Truly.
The beauty of the tree triumphs over the grave. We all may triumph over the grave through the way we live as individuals, as a species. Whether we triumph beyond it I will leave to your own beliefs about the soul of our glorious being. And if we humans manage through our foolishness to destroy all the trees then the beauty of the Earth will triumph over that grave. The universe will triumph until that too dies and is lost. And then what?
From the dead end - very much a living end - I walked back from the not-path and back onto the path and I couldn't stop taking photos. There are a lot. Far more than I've included here. I was filled with joy to be there.
This is in memory of Elizabeth and Thomas Eggleston. They died nearly 200 years ago. Is this a fit way to remember them? After 200 years, should we remember them at all? Should we imagine the lives they lived and the way they would have loved and struggled? They must have had good times. But they had sorrow too. The stone tells of two children also buried, both of whom died in infancy as many children did then. As many children still do across the world. What does the sanctity of life mean when so many die so young? What does the sanctity of death mean? If it's acceptable to treat a grave site like this when Elizabeth died in 1826, can we treat a grave like this for an Elizabeth who died in 2006? If not, what is the cut off point?
Truly the way we treat graves tells us a lot about ourselves. One thing may be acceptable and another thing unacceptable. And we will disagree about what those things are.
And all these things are just our way of dealing with death. Our cultural ways. They're not shared in other cultures where a corpse will be burned or left for vultures. Where shrines are erected in homes to honour ancestors. Where a body must be buried that day. There are many ways now and there have been many others before. Are any of them more right than any other?
And our ways are changing too. It wasn't long ago that cremation would have been totally unacceptable for many Christians. The idea was that a body should not be cremated because then how can we expect it to be resurrected when Jesus returns? So cremation was impossible. That's changed. You won't find many Christians now who would see the cremation might cause them any problems at all in their afterlife. As faith changes, and as faith sometimes dies it's own death, our attitudes change too.
I think this century will be an interesting one as far as our attitudes go. More and more we're entering into a post-religious society where many more people belief that physical death is the end. We have one life. And then it's over. What difference will have have to the ways we choose to treat a human corpse? At this point we're only just beginning to find out.
I've typed more than I meant. The plan was to post a load of pictures of gravestones. Then I started thinking. A set of thoughts that lead me to questions but which haven't led me to answers as I've typed.
One last picture. I left the overgrown wooded part of the graveyard and I met a friend. She's called Kate and she was the most fluffy, friendly, joyous person I met that day. She wouldn't stop moving for long enough that I could take photos. There's just this one. A beautiful bundle of joy who couldn't care less about death and graves and about what will happen to her own body when she dies.
Maybe Kate can teach us something. Just get on and live.
You have this life. Live it and embrace the moments.
|The very gorgeous Kate|