Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Grave News (April); the dead of London (and elsewhere) in the media





Just after Easter I was puzzled by the sudden flurry of interest in “Grave Wax, Corpse Liquor and Kissing Dead Queens – the boundless curiosity of the Gentlemen of the 17th Century”, a post from last July.  At the time I wrote the rather morbid little article I had hoped it might breathe a little life into my moribund blog and generate a few more page views than usual. But the macabre investigations of John Aubrey, Sir Thomas Browne and Samuel Pepys failed to pique the curiosity of the surfers and  browsers of cyberspace. I didn’t work out what had provoked the recent outbreak of views until a reddit thread called ‘Interesting as fuck’ showed up as a source of traffic and I followed the links back  to a Harry Mount article in the Daily Telegraph about the discovery of the Archbishop’s vault at St Mary-at-Lambeth. It was a story that had generated a fair amount of media interest over the Easter weekend but Harry Mount had uniquely mentioned that “most lead sarcophagi contain dry remains; however, some bodies decompose into a viscous black liquid known as “coffin liquor”. Should the ancient casings ever crack, it will spray forth.” The term ‘coffin liquor’ had been googled frequently enough in the following days to send my viewing figures rocketing for a post containing the synonymous term ‘corpse liquor’.  

St Mary-at-Lambeth; 14th century tower, the rest gothic revival
The ancient church of St Mary-at-Lambeth has some remarkable characters buried in the churchyard (or inside the precincts of the church) including the Tradescants, Elias Ashmole, Captain Bligh, the Comtesse de la Motte, William Bacon of the Salt Office (struck by lightning and burnt to a crisp) and Peter Ducrow. Of the medieval church only the 14th century tower now remains; the rest was pulled down in 1851 and rebuilt in a Gothic revival style entirely in keeping with the original. The reconstruction of the church was an opportunity to clear the crypt and vaults of a few hundred years of accumulated coffins and start afresh in a new, hygienic, miasma free atmosphere. It had always been assumed that the Victorians, in their usual conscientious manner, had thoroughly emptied and filled in the numerous vaults and so the discovery of a hidden flight of steps beneath the stone flags of the nave by workmen working on the remodelling of the building for the Garden Museum (who now occupy the church) was something of a surprise. In the old days some intrepid individual would have had to descend the stairs to find out what was down there in the forgotten vault but this being 2017 there is no longer any necessity to risk life or limb to make important archaeological discoveries, not if you have an iPhone and a selfie stick.  The first glimpse of the vault’s contents came from a video shot on a smartphone mounted on a stick and poked through a hole in the rubble – a tumbled pile of 30 lead coffins incongruously surmounted by a gold plated Bishop’s mitre.  The phone on stick technology, or a variant thereof, seems to have been the preferred method of carrying out a detailed assessment of the vault’s contents. Coffin nameplates have allowed investigators to identify some of those buried in the forgotten vault; they include two Archbishop’s of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft and John Moore and his wife Catherine Eden Moore, and John Bettesworth, a Dean of Arches. As parish records indicate that at least three more archbishops were buried at St Mary’s, it is strongly suspected that  Frederick Cornwallis (in office 1768-1783), Matthew Hutton (1757-1758) and Thomas Tenison (1695-1715) are also interred in the vault.  The Garden Museum have excavated a manhole above in the floor of the church glazed with a glass panel to allow visitors a view of the vault. The museum reopens this month and the 30 coffins and Bishop’s Mitre will almost certainly prove a draw with the general public.

Catherine Moore, wife of Archbishop John Moore, and her children by Daniel Gardner. Catherine was buried with her husband in the Archbishops vault at St Mary-at-Lambeth 
As part of a series called ‘Life Stories’ the BBC World Service broadcast a programme at the end of April called ‘Living With The Dead.’  It explores the unusual mortuary practices of the Toraja region of Sulawesi where animist beliefs still hold some sway against encroaching Christianity and the locals bury their dead with far less haste than has become the norm in the rest of the world. According to the BBC’s Sahar Zand “after someone dies, it may be months, sometimes years, before a funeral takes place. In the meantime, the families keep their bodies in the house and care for them as if they were sick. They are brought food, drink and cigarettes twice a day. They are washed and have their clothes changed regularly. The dead even have a bowl in the corner of the room as their "toilet". Furthermore, the deceased are never left on their own and the lights are always left on for them when it gets dark. The families worry that if they don't take care of the corpses properly, the spirits of their departed loved ones will give them trouble.” Corpses are preserved with liberal doses of formalin and then held onto until the family feels ready to hold a funeral. These are lavish affairs often lasting several days during which dozens of buffaloes and hundreds of pigs are slaughtered and guests sing and dance and gorge themselves on meat. After the funeral the deceased if interred in either a family tomb or in one of the many caves used for community burials. The wealthiest families commission realistic wooden statues of the deceased called tau tau, dress them in the dead person’s clothes, jewellery, glasses and even hair and set them to watch over the final resting place. Even after interment the Torajans continue to visit their relatives and handle their corpses. Zand says “In the rest of the world, these practices may seem bizarre. But perhaps the principles behind them are not so very different from those found in other cultures. Remembering the dead is something many of us try to do. The Torajans just take a very different approach.”   If you are interested you have about three weeks to watch the programme before it disappears from the BBC iPlayer.  

 
And finally, last week the Londonist featured an interactive map of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries :