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Ruth (middle) and me (right) at Chester cathedral for a photo op when the project began, Dr Keith Mclay, our glorious leader, Head of Department of History and Archaeology on the left. I love Mark English photo-shoots. Copyright: University of Chester

Today, I spent much of my time photographing memorials in Chester cathedral as part of the on-going research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust – Speaking with the Dead. This is the first of a three-strand project also funded by the European Research Council to explore ‘histories of memory’ in the English and Welsh landscape: The Past in its Place. The project funds a PhD student to investigate tombs and memory in English cathedrals: Ruth Nugent.

Over the last two years, we have explored a selection of English and Welsh cathedrals, investigating their varied tombs and a series of themes connected them to the space in which they were first placed, and how they are often moved and sometimes reused.

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Cloister window memorial to Mallory and Irvine
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Sculpture of St Werburgh

As our ‘home cathedral’, we have left Chester until last. There was much that was familiar and much that was new.

One of the themes I am interested in is the late-modern transformation of cathedrals as places for remembering the dead. In particular, I am interested in how military and heroic cenotaphic memorials persist in cathedrals. An example of this can be seen on the left, a window in the cathedral cloister commemorating the ‘two valiant men of Cheshire’ who failed to conquer Mount Everest and return in one piece: Mallory and Irvine. Obviously, at that time, their fate on the mountain was a mystery and their bodies had not been recovered.

On the right, the foundation myth and cult of Saint Werburgh is a focus of the catherdral’s Lady Chapel. The shrine is built of fragments of the medieval shrine destroyed following the Dissolution. Yet, the modern wooden sculpture selected as the foci of the  shrine is both a memorial to the Saint and a memorial to the mother and father of the sculptor whose ashes were strewn in the cathedral close. Here, the ancient ‘very special’ dead are complained with the commemoration of the contemporary cremated dead.

I am talking about these, and other examples of twentieth and twenty-first century commemoration in and around cathedrals at next month’s conference at the University of Exeter. For further information on this event, click here.

Please note: we are not really ‘speaking with the dead’, we are exploring tombs and memorials.

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