When I entered through the iron-thronged vines of the abbey gates…
I cared not for the graves of kings and queens, but for paying my respects to the memorials of John Milton and T.S Eliot. While I arrived with the thought of expecting immediate gratification, I was soon delayed. The expanse of the abbey was predominantly a place of burial than a church. But regardless, it bore the air of a place of worship. Thousands of Tombs erupted from the flagstones in every which way, stalagmites of death demanding contemplation.
Curving through the labyrinth, my passion cooled. I first paid my respects to sister-queens seeking heavenly reconciliation: Queen Elizabeth, Virgin Queen, and Queen Mary, Bloody Mary. Whether by the achievement of the dead or the natural religiosity of the ornate monument before me, I soon fell into a worshipful solemnity.
Here, in the highest church of the land, lies the most elite dead of one of the most prosperous nations in human history. As the passage of time collected the debt of their mortality, their secular shells gathered here to rest. Often in stone, they sleep for all eternity upon sculptured pillows, their deeds rendered immortal. Do they speak to each other, addressing for the first time both their descendants and ancestors in this hive of royal relations? Their riches are openly displayed: exotic marble in every shade, gold, silver, gems, mother-of-pearl, a bastion of fresh flowers to cushion entrance to their tombs, renewed every waking dawn.
How best do we, grasping human fools, preserve our dead in life? When we render their countenance in oil paint, can it not simply be painted over with the face of another? When we praise their achievements in verse, can it not be revised and changed with the simple insertion of another’s name? Ah, but then there is stone. To carve stone, earthen bone, into full identity demands the utmost might within human life and creativity. And if alteration were possible, its proximity to the body of the dead, the sanctity of the gravesite, brings public outrage.
Walking through the flagstones, I found the fashions of each period’s funerary customs to be evident. I progressed through the colorful, checkered, golden tombs of the Middle Ages to the majestic, somber, stone countenances of the Renaissance (from the war memorial of the Second Duke or Ormonde to the elegant, rose-buried WWI grave of the Unknown Warrior.)
Sometimes, I would turn a corner only to gasp in shock—memento mori were ubiquitous; accusatory skulls and self-righteous skeletons abounded. Milton and Eliot came at the end, after a parade of prominent dead. I had all but exhausted my blessings.
I wondered about what changes we had made to today’s funerary traditions, since they are derived from the mournful blacks and somber stone crosses of the Victorian period. Perhaps, ironically, it is “greener” to have switched from commemorating life in stone to Facebook pages, and at this point, there is no telling which is more permanent. But certainly, one is far grander.