Lonely things made me sad, lonely tombs most of all. Lonely funerary monuments in urban centres are particularly uncanny and dejected.
What defines loneliness in archaeodeath terms?
OED defines loneliness as ‘the quality and condition of being lonely’, either as
1. Want of society or company; the condition of being alone or solitary; solitariness, loneness.
2. Uninhabited or unfrequented condition or character (of a place); desolateness.
3. The feeling of being alone; the sense of solitude; dejection arising from want of companionship or society.
Definition 2: Spatially Lonely
So when we apply ‘lonely’ to archaeological sites, monuments and landscapes, we would consider definition 2 applicable. In funerary terms – this is a blog about archaeological traces of mortality and memory – we might consider a ‘lonely’ monument to be a mountaintop cairn to a dead climber, a solitary tomb on a headland or island to a mariner, or perhaps even an isolated churchyard with a graveyard, but together they share in loneliness as they are collectively abandoned, neglected and isolated from present-day habitations. Individually and collectively, tombs can be ‘lonely’ by being neglected and separated.
Definition 1: Dejection as Condition
Yet might we consider stretching its use to definition no. 1: that material things, ruins, places – and tombs in particular – want company and society. Can loneliness be more than a geographic descriptor of a situation created for them or transpiring after their creation/installation? Do ‘lonely’ tombs not only exist in spatial isolation but want for company?
Do memorials want the company of other tombs? While an isolated location might be considered an exclusive one, that is sought out intentionally to afford the dead prominence and prevent their stories being sullied by those of others, it can be a dimension of failed intention for a cemetery to develop, or an accrued neglected and dejection?
Do they want the company of the living, either in terms of visitation to themselves, maintenance of their surroundings or worshippers/mourners visiting nearby structures and tombs? Do tombs want for attention if they no longer can be legible, discernible, accessible, and meaningful for living people?
So we talk about abjection as a quality of the corpse, but perhaps archaeologists need to consider more carefully dejection as a complex and varied dimension of memorials’ and tombs’ conditions, as well as geographical separation. How does the ‘lonely condition’ of particular tombs trouble and challenge us and those who engage with cemeteries and graves?
Definition 3: Tombs Feeling Lonely
Certainly for inanimate things many might readily discount definition 3, since cadavers and things need to be alive, thinking and feeling to recognise their solitude and feeling of dejection from others. Only from the more ludicrous spiritual perspectives and those intent on affording material things human-like qualities might we consider tombs to feel lonely. Yet many past societies, and those in the present, afford personalities and animate agencies to things, including the dead. So it is possible to ascribe loneliness not only as an emotion felt by the living, but felt by tombs?
Further, there are other ways we might consider tombs to feel lonely without affording a spiritual presence or material agency by considering the mnemonic agency of a tomb being restricted or denied. We can readily identify tombs with texts, images, ornament, textures and locations, that through design or happenstance, demand sensory and emotional entanglements and yet are denied effective enactment. Loneliness is the denial or restriction on the tombs’ intended mnemonic and emotive efficacy.
So, I would suggest, in material terms, ‘lonely’ things are more than simply definition 2, more than even defintion 1 – uninhabited and unfrequented conditions and characters. When applied to gravestones, they were memorials with texts that were intended to be read, created to have audiences of the living. They were also installed in spaces set aside to appear with collections of other tombs: churchyards and cemteries, and therefore to be visited in isolation, witnessed in solitude or to become isolated through dislocation renders them ‘lonely’. Likewise, being denied audiences and associations creates more than spatial, but symbolic and mnemonic dejection.
Lonely Tombs in Busy Places
As with people, I would suggest that the loneliest tombs are not geographically isolated, but possess a condition of segregation and afford a feeling of isolation. In this regard, many are hidden in plain sight at the very centre of our busiest conurbations as well as in rural and wild places. Things become lonely through their dislocation, isolation and disjunction from sociality and commemoration, whether this is created by tombs being moved to render them ‘lonely’, or their environs transformed to render them lonely in situ.
This brings me to the Grosvenor Road roundabout in the heart of the city of Chester. At the historic junction between Grosvenor Road, Castle Esplanade (now Nicholas Street), Grosvenor Street, and Castle Street, was the location of the second St Bridget’s church. It was built in 1829 following the demolition of the earlier St Bridget’s church when Grosvenor Street was created to approach Harrison’s new Grosvenor Bridge. The second church was in turn pulled down in 1891 but its churchayrd remained as a triangular space between Castle Esplanade and Grosvenor Street through the early/mid-20th century. In the 1960s, the creation of the roundabout saw the exhumation of some graves including the architect Harrison, but the bisection of the churchyard into a space on the side of the Magistrate’s court beneath yew trees and bearing a few dislocated gravestones, and a section now within the newly created roundabout.
Today, there is a single gravestone on the roundabout, originally at the southernmost edge of the churchyard now isolated in plain sight beneath trees and among flowers upon mown grass. The tombstone is listed by English Heritage and dates to c. 1866.
This coped gravestone bears the lengthy text, memorialising an old man with a long military service history:
IN MEMORY OF THOMAS GOULD LATE OF THE 52ND REGT. OF FOOT LI. D0IED IN NOVEMBER 1865 AGED 72 YEARS 46 OF WHICH WERE SPENT IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY. HE WAS PRESENT IN THE FOLLOWING ENGAGEMENTS. VIMERA, CORUNA, CROSSING THE GOE NEAR ALMEIDA, BSACO, PUMBAL, REDINHA, CONDEIXA, FOZ D’AVOCA, SARUGAL, FUENTES DONOLE, STORMING OF CUIDAD RODRIGO AND RADASOS SALMANCA, SAN MUNOS (fallen prisoner), ST MILAN, VITTORIA, PYRENEES, STORMING OF THE FRENCH ESTABLISHMENT OF VERA (wounded), NIVELLE, PASSAGE OF THE NEVE ORTHES, TARBES, TOULOUSE AND WATERLOO. HE RECEIVED THE PENINSULA MEDAL WITH 13 CLASPS AND THE WATERLOO MEDAL. THE STONE IS PLACED OVER HIM BY A FEW FRIENDS
The tomb is hardly ever visited given that doing so isn’t easy since there is no immediate pedestrian access.
Its only companion makes its isolation even more emotive. This is a Victorian obelisk that sat at the very southernmost tip of the churchyard beside the original road, commemorating the 17th-century preacher Matthew Henry. This is a very different and cenotaphic monument, and therefore its isolation is distinctive, marking the former edge of the churchyard and position of the former road, but not fully a part of the former churchyard popular.
So this dislocated and dissected churchyard is a desolate place within a public urban space: it is open and bare to all as a sign of urban planning through churchyard desecration and neglect. Cestrians see this and know this. The remaining tombs are regarded as ‘sorry traces’ by one website – ChesterWalls.
So it is lonely in a public place, but also it is lonely in its condition. The grass is cut on the roundabout, pedestrians walk who can see the roundabout but not readily access it. It is encircled by roads packed with cars moving at a pace and fashion that gives them no ability to stop and appreciate the tomb, even if they spot it. But does it also feel lonely?
As ChesterWalls states:
It is easy to imagine the old warrior, having, against all odds, surviving all those terrible battles of the Napoleonic Wars, returning to Chester and growing old, enjoying his retirement and sitting in a favoured corner of his local pub (doubtlessly, as befits a military man, somewhere here in the vicinity of the Castle) regailing his friends with all manner of blood-curdling tales from his long career. They, and doubtlessly also the young and as-yet unblooded members of the garrison, would have been glad to buy him a pint or two and, when the time came, give him a good send-off and a decent burial. We wonder what he would make of his present situation!
For me, it is the ultimate example of archaeodeath loneliness: dejected in plain sight. A tomb spatially isolated, in a condition of loneliness, and evoking dejection.