Infant effigy: Lanercost Priory

Whether in the context of fieldwork, archives, publications, museums or other heritage context, mortuary archaeologists and those engaging with mortuary archaeology often face the tough, and sometimes unexpected, situation of dealing with the mortal remains and memorials to infants and young children. Such encounters can be a well-rehearsed challenge, a shock to the system or simply a point for slow and gradual reflection on mortality from a different perspective.

And before we go any further, this isn’t a meant as some cringeworthy auto-archaeological blog entry about my experience as a parent. Whether you have/had infants and/or children yourself, have ever met infants and/or children in life, or you actually remember being an infant and/or child yourself once, this applies to you. Let’s face it, more than one of these categories applies to almost all of us! Yes, that’s right. Even you, the behaving-really-indignant-and-disapproving-of-life person getting grumpy at children running, playing, crying and laughing in the local supermarket.

Chester Cathedral memorial

My simple point is that engaging with archaeological traces of infant and child death and commemoration can be simply interesting (or not), but it might also be particularly disconcerting, upsetting and memorable in comparison with engagements with adult remains in the same fashion. Sometimes it is not about infants or childhood directly, but the relationships between siblings and parents implied or revealed through the traces we encounter that provoke the strongest reactions. Encountering infant/child mortality has a distinctive resonance, foregrounding the potential brevity of human existence, not only for those that die young, but for everyone.

17th-century memorial: Southwark Cathedral

Of course, reactions vary enormously between individuals and their cultural and religious upbringing. They will vary incredibly even for the same person depending on the relationship between the moment of engagement, their context, and whether they are engaging with the subject in private or with others.

Personally, I concede that skeletons still affect me in unpredictable ways. Yet I don’t think I have a specific and repeated issue with ancient infant and child skeletons. Indeed, I want my kids to encounter them too. This was certainly the case when I recently visited the famous child skeleton – focus of so much controversy – in the Alexander Keiller Museum run by the National Trust at Avebury, Wiltshire. Recently, a bid for the removal from display and reburial of the child skeleton of Neolithic date found on Windmill Hill sparked a widespread English Heritage and National Trust consultation regarding the UK public’s feelings about the display of human remains in museums. I think it was no coincidence that the remains that were the focus of this controversy were of Neolithic date and from Avebury, but also those of a child. Where else can school kids today receive a staged exposure to issues of infant and child mortality than in an archaeological museum? Where else can any of us find a more evocative engagement with the challenges and experiences of life, dying and death in the human past?

Cherub heads – Chester Cathedral

However, I really, really, really detest representations of children in mortuary art. The one dimension to modern gravestones I simply cannot stand are photographs of dead infants. If anything goes in modern commemoration, this is the one thing that should NEVER be allowed in my view. Historic examples of the same phenomenon are particular difficult viewing, such as memorial photographs of dead children or memorial portraits and sculptures to children.

A particularly horrific Victorian effigy of a child haunts me still; it can be seen at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria.

Yet at least there is something tangible and directed about these memorials; they are conveying a sense of the dead person in a direct way to the viewer and this honesty is to be respected, even if it jars with one’s sensibilities and provokes unwelcome emotions.

Somehow worse still are material allusions to, and commemorative media utilising, children as mourning catalysts: representations of agents in the operation of mourning or divine forces that are somehow supposed to care that the memorial subject has died.

Of course in elite commemoration through the early modern period through to the nineteenth century, this was all the rage. Hence, we find cherubs and children as attendants: framing and populating memorials to adults and siblings in equal measure.

I cannot be neutral to these memorials. Whilst they are fascinating, rich and varied records of commemorative strategies in the context of wall epitaphs, they give me the shivers.

What’s wrong with them for me? I hate their dishonest, gaudy, euphemistic nature. They don’t upset me so much as irritate me. In addition, few of them look like kids I would ever want to meet: they look healthy and yet too healthy, as if harbouring some hidden disease. Sometimes I find myself angered by their generic character and sometimes for their brutal ugliness. I also find their nakedness and hair-styles repellent. Perhaps most insulting of all is the way they are mobilised as mindless frozen pawns in perpetual attendance to someone else’s death…

So every time I visit a church or cathedral, I run the gauntlet of these horrific sprogs with or without wings. Here are some examples for you to reflect on yourself from Southwark Cathedral and Chester Cathedral for you to ‘enjoy’…

18th-century child mourners, Southwark Cathedral

I appreciate this is an incredibly subjective issue. I anticipate the hate-mail of church monument fans who love these diminutive terrors. Still, I simply have to confess it: I am funerary art paedophobic, or perhaps a cherubphobic…

Cherubs above and below: 18th-century memorial, Southwark Cathedral