Noisy as the Grave?

Published: Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Diarmaid MacCulloch writes about tombs, gravestones and the changing nature of Christian burial

After I’d finished writing my last book Silence: a Christian History, on as many varieties of silence as I could think of – silences both good and bad, throughout the history of Christianity and Judaism before it – I realised I had written little about the greatest silence of all: death.  One excuse for that omission could be practical: if I had included death, I would have increased the size of the  book unmanageably, let alone outstripping the six hours  of the Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburghfrom which the book had sprung.

 But there are better reasons than faint-heartedness.  Christians have in practice been far from silent about death  and the afterlife. In the Gospels, Jesus says much about the  life to come, dividing up the sheep and the goats, that sort of thing. Later, the main spur to the Protestant Reformation was a heated and raucous argument about death, whether or not the Catholic Church could justify its claim to influence the fate of Christian souls in the afterlife. Then there is the falsity of that cliched simile, ‘silent as the grave’. Graves are frequently not at all silent. Tombstones discuss death, often at great length. Medieval tombs in western Europe went a step further, imploring passers-by to pray for the souls of those who lay beneath, just as beggars sitting outside the church might pester those walking past for small change.

'Harold and Maude’

 As a child, I was almost as ghoulish as the young hero of that classic movie ‘Harold and Maude’, for although I didn’t go as far as attending funerals, I enthusiastically made heelball rubbings of medieval monumental brasses, and I also catalogued the gravestones in two or three of the local churchyards in the little East Anglian villages where I grew up. Churchyards were pleasant, green, tranquil places, and those stones, some of them two or three centuries old, were full of information about lives lived long and short, virtues and loves remembered. What I didn’t appreciate as I copied down those inscriptions, was that these gravestones were also witnesses to a sudden outbreak of self-assertion or even selfishness among our British ancestors around 1700.

Previously only the very rich and powerful, like Egyptian pharaohs, or later the English nobility, gentry and wealthy clergy, had taken up space in churches and churchyards with big stone monuments. Everyone else made do with at best a wooden plank or marker painted with a few words about the deceased. I was later impressed by this when I saw an early Victorian photo of a churchyard at Croydon in Surrey, which in 1867 was still full of those wooden memorials, looking like lines of low benches or little fences.

Crowds of stones

This might seem a trivial change, but it wasn’t. Wooden markers gently decayed back into the soil, making way for the next generation of the dead. Stone would not do that: the space was permanently and selfishly annexed by the Georgian, Victorian or later deceased, and graveyards were frozen in time. It’s at least one reason why there was a proliferation of cemeteries in the Victorian age, with such panoplies of permanent commemoration as surround Karl Marx at Highgate: the stones kept re-use of space at bay.

I guess you could call it the democratisation of tombstones, because it marked an unprecedented moment in history, when far more people than the aristocracy had the money to spend on permanent stone memorials. All over the USA as well as Britain, you can see the same phenomenon as in those British country churchyards. Indeed, the crowds of stones in American cemeteries often predate their British counterparts, suggesting that in that country nominally without gentry or aristocracy, this was part of the American consumerist dream just as early as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And there it is in the rest of Europe too, as prosperity spread in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and mass consumerism extended to the ranks of the dead.

Noise of the gravestones

Tombs represent an almost universal human self-indulgence, a longing to perpetuate individual existence, if possible, for ever. Not just Christians have felt that way; it goes right back to the pyramids of Egypt and beyond. For Christians it’s illogical, because Christianity is based on the principle that there is not much that you and I can do to influence our fate after death; it’s all in the hands of God. In any case, if you believe in life after death, the soul is nowhere near those graves sealed by granite and marble. So in Christian culture it really is self-indulgence. As I now contemplate those churchyards stuffed with stone, I’m struck by a striking historical parallel in exactly the same timespan: the Industrial Revolution, which from the eighteenth century was fuelled by fossil fuels, irreplaceable, one-off power sources.

We can draw a moral. Once you’ve filled a graveyard with gravestones, that’s it, short of the ultimate drastic clearance of the soil with a bulldozer. And once the fossil fuels have gone from our subsoil, that’s it; but the difference is that there will be no fuel left for the equivalent of the bulldozer. Shall we listen to the noise of the gravestones and hear what they have to tell us about our own self-importance and disregard for the generations to come?

This article first appeared in the National Churches Trust Annual Review 2013 – 2014, published in October 2014

Diarmaid MacCulloch, DD, FBA, is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, aTV presenter and author. His History of Christianity: the first three thousand yearswon the 2010 Cundill Prize, the world’s largest prize for history, and his latest BBC2 series is Sex and the West. His latest book is Silence: a Christian History (Viking Penguin). He was knighted in the New Year’s Honours List of 2012.