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The memorial plaque and photograph of Edward White Benson in St Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden

Dying in church during Sunday service? What are the odds? If this happens, surely that is bad news: a sign of a really bad character who has done something terribly wrong in the eyes of the Almighty or perhaps simply really bad luck.

If you are a really devout and above repute Christian it seems that death in church can get a positive spin. For an archbishop, it is dying on the job in a sense and worthy of positive commemoration in its own right. It worked okay for Becket didn’t it? Proof, if proof be need be, that Christianity is superb at putting a positive spin on the most unexpected of deaths through commemorative monumentality.

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Benson’s effigy in Canterbury Cathedral

This is what happened in St Deiniol’s church, Hawarden, Flintshire, to the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson, aged 67, on Sunday 11th October 1886. Benson had been visiting former prime minister William Ewart Gladstone when he perished from a heart attack during the Sunday service.

Upon one of the pillars within the church there is a photograph and memorial plaque commemorating his (un)lucky fate. This is a rare memorial because it marks the church itself as a site of death and commemorates that fact.

Three days after his death, Benson’s body was loaded onto a train three days later at the no-longer-extant Sandycroft railway station and transported all the way to Canterbury for burial. His monument (I am not sure whether it marks his burial place, or not) is under the north-west tower of Canterbury Cathedral – St Augustine’s Chapel. It is a striking and dramatic late Victorian effigy tomb, one of a series that mark the final resurgence of this grandiose memorial tradition, as discussed here.

The archbishop is commemorated elsewhere, including Lincoln Cathedral. Together, this is evidence that if you are at the highest level of the church hierarchy, you can be memorialised in many locations. Furthermore, it shows that death in church doesn’t always play out badly in commemorative terms. Is this the Victorian Anglican clerical equivalent of dying whilst charging the enemy lines?

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The canopy of Benson’s tomb
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