The anthropomorphic solid oak coffin set high in the walls of the ruins of the chancel of St John’s priory, Chester, is one of the most bizarre archaeodeath phenomena one is likely to see. It is ‘shrouded’ in bogus lore seemingly created by guides to entertain visitors. The coffin has been seen as that of a murdered monk, a real vertical burial in the walls to await the Resurrection facing east, or a coffin installed by the Devil himself so that the corpse of its sinning occupant could look down in perpetual penance on the world.
Jonathan Coley Reports
In reality, this appears to be a rare survival of a medieval wooden coffin. Jonathan Coley – an expert on St John’s and the archaeologist working on the current St John’s project – tells me it was discovered during renovation work or grave-digging – perhaps in the 1840s – near the south wall of the church. Apparently it was on display in the churchyard for a while before being installed in this location for reasons that remain unclear:
The perambulating Chester Guides, a race not yet quite extinct, have from time to time made up many a foolish story about this solid oak coffin for the delectation of their Lancashire dupes, who usually pay more court to that ghastly old shell than to the beautiful architectural ruins and church that adjoin it. One story is that it was the coffin of a monk who murdered one of his brethren at St. John’s, and at his own death was refused the ordinary Christian burial, whether within the church or beneath the green sod of the churchyard. Another is that a dignitary of the church was at his own request ‘buried’ up there in a standing position, so that, when the last trumpet should sound, he might be ready at once to answer the call. Another is that a wicked old parishioner of past days was unable to rest in his grave, and that Satan himself had helped to place him in the lofty position so that he might look down, in perpetual penance, on the fair world he had defiled by his sins. I have overheard during the last dozen years every one of these stories recounted in sober earnest by Mr. Guide to his morbid listeners. The real story of the coffin is soon told. Forty years ago, when a boy at school, I remember old John Carter, the then sexton of the Cathedral, going with me at my request into St. John’s Ruins (at that time enveloped within a brick wall, and portion of the of the old Priory House), to show me the relic and then fresh-looking inscription. He assured me on the spot that his father, who was sexton of St. John’s a great number of years, had in his younger days come upon the coffin while digging a grave in a long disused part of the churchyard; and had, by the Rector’s (Mr. Richardson’s) orders, stuck it up in the recess where it still stands, so that it might be out of the way of passers by! Thus has a very matter of fact in incident given rise in superstitious minds to no end of mystery. has this one element of real interest in it, that it is composed of a single block of oak which has been hollowed out to receive the body”.
From the Cheshire Sheaf 1878
I’m grateful to Jonathan for sharing this account. So if we are to believe this discussion, the specific position was chosen for the wooden sarcophagus in order for it to be positioned out of the way. And yet, it strikes me that in doing so, it renders it a striking, memorable, incongruous and eerie magnet for folklore that might intrigue tourists and help foster the income of local Cheshire guides. The painting of ‘Dust to Dust’ upon it in mock Gothic writing render it even more of a fake memento mori and a somewhat tawdry tourist attraction. In this regard, I think we are looking at the receptacles of the medieval dead reused as Victorian public money-spinning tourist attractions. In fact, it remains this way to today.
Sarcophagi and the Absent Dead
Still, this is not exceptional in other ways; many churches display medieval sarcophagi as integral elements of their ruins. Found at various times, they constitute some of the most powerful mortuary spolia.
They are often exhibited without explanation and information about their original occupants and when they were found. Even relatively recent ones like those on display at Dorchester on Thames, lack connection to their mortuary context.
As such, they constitute a widespread and neglected dimension of the modern mortuary topography of ruined abbeys and priories. They reveal the power of the absent dead and spaces that imply their former presence, to still affect visitors as receptacles. This is true even long after they have been separated from the bones that they once contained and once their occupants have become anonymous and unknowable. The empty tomb reveals the power of the imagination to imply past presences – both the dead themselves and their former lives as well.