I’ve been feeling very tired this afternoon: perhaps a stress and work-induced exhaustion. It might be a mixture of last week’s work catching up on me, plus dread of the working week to come. It is inflated by casual unkindnesses and ongoing dilemmas. So let me try to write something inspiring and positive about tombs as an antidote.
This is written following last Tuesday’s field trip to Gresford church and churchyard with my wonderful students on the module ‘Landscapes and Memory’ – part of the MA Archaeology and Heritage Practice and the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory.
We explored the church monuments – medieval and modern – and then the churchyard, plus the churchyard extension. In so doing, we appraised the shifting and adapting landscape of memorials, with monuments raised and reused, and supplanted.
Every year or so, a student or colleague suggests to me that it isn’t commonplace for ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ people to actively seek out tombs and cemeteries. It is seemingly perceived as ‘neglecting’ the living.
My response to this is uncompromising. I regard the fear of one’s own mortality as understandable and unpredictable. However, to purport and practice the active dislike or disregard of the dead – their spaces and material manifestations, is in my view far from ‘normal’ and certainly unhealthy. Moreover, I regard those that don’t have either a passing respect or active interest in gardens of remembrance, crematoria, churchyards and cemeteries as not only cultural imbeciles but conceding the destruction of material cultures, structures, buildings, places of worship, monuments and landscapes as important aspects of cultural heritage.
Whether your interest is in archaeology, history, in art, in architecture, in designed landscapes, in ‘nature’, the resting place of an ancestor or loved one, tombs, churchyards, and cemeteries are for you. They are more than residues of past lives, they are part of ongoing relationships between the living and the dead.
We live in a time when we have shifting media and material cultures associated with the mourning, the disposal and commemoration of the dead in which tombs are not an essential. Indeed, they never have been. Yet we live at a time when to recognise and respect tombs and other funeral architectures and environments – ancient and recent, present and future – is an essential for civilized 21st-century life. It is part of an awareness and engagement with one’s historic environment and the people who have lived in it, do live in it, and will live in it in the future.
To ignore tombs, to detest cemeteries, or abhore the resting places and memorials of those that have gone before is not only to turn one’s back on the past and its people and thus to deny history. Also, it is a personal and social failure to appreciate the complex socio-economic processes by which memorials were created, as well as the many factors influencing their obliteration and their selective survival and restoration. To explore tombs is therefore not a ‘morbid’ concern, nor is it about valoring the elites who could afford permanent and enduring resting places. Instead, it is about exploring the complex spatial and temporal tapestry of mortality, including the many whose memorials were never made and do not survive, as well as those that still retain a monument or memorial.
Therefore, understanding tombs as arenas for materialising faith, status, wealth and social identity is only part of their significance. Cemeteries, tombs and other memorial environments are also spaces for social remembering and forgetting in complex interleaving strategies; landscapes of memory accumulating and changing down the decades and centuries and where those denied a memorial can be perceived too.
Tombs are for the living and the dead. Therefore, my simple view is apparent: when one is tired of tombs, one is tired of life.