Can These Dry Bones Live?


On History

In the second of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the necrotopology of the churchyard.

Henry Alexander Bowler, The Doubt: ‘Can these Dry Bones Live?’, 1855.

The churchyard was, with few exceptions, a lumpy, untidy place. Gravediggers have always instinctively known this; they dug in ground that had been turned over for centuries. From very near the beginning they intercut, hacked through, turned over, tossed out earlier tenants to make room for new ones, and every few hundred years or so apparently leveled the ground and started again. In centuries-long cycles, the fact that there were dead bodies in the ground was made evident on its surface. The dead are really there. The lumps we can still see today in a few churchyards escaped one last round of recycling when the bodies stopped coming or when a local landscaper decided to leave them be. 

The majority of the parish (that is, the poor) were thus visible as a collectivity; their bodies changed the shape of the land; they were constitutive of the “mould’ring heaps” that are the churchyard’s surface. They were insistent on being seen even if they could not also claim the regard that the speaker in Gray’s elegy paid to them. To a large extent this is also what it was like for the middling sorts. The churchyard was not primarily a space for individual commemoration or for mourning at a family grave; indeed, there was, as we will see, technically no such thing, even if custom allowed it. Passersby would have seen a few temporary wooden markers; there were wreaths or in some cases plaques inside the church, but outside there was little that was intended to be permanent. Some of the elite of a parish had marked individual graves outside, and in sparsely populated parishes there was some hope that a family of bodies might remain for decades or even centuries together in a vault or at least in proximity to one another. There were few tombstones—five, ten, maybe twenty—in a space that we know holds thousands of bodies, and they were not set in concrete. They are invariably depicted as tilting precariously, as if to proclaim their impermanence. And since no one could claim a specific part of the churchyard, they were in fact transient. Even the occasional box tomb is usually shown in a state of disrepair. Inside there was more hope for rest but even there nothing was assured. When Samuel Pepys in 1664 arranged for his brother’s interment in the middle aisle of Saint Bride’s, London, the sexton promised—after accepting a six-pence tip—that he would “jostle them [other bodies] but [would] make room for him.” The remodeling of the parish church of Gulval near Penzance in 1897 revealed what any eighteenth-century sexton, most families, and twentieth-century archeologists would have known: that “the whole of the interior of the church had been used over and over again for interments,” and thus no one had a secure place, even inside. A few great families kept their places for centuries. Outside, there was no pretense.

The churchyard was and looked to be a place for remembering a bounded community of the dead who belonged there rather than a place for individual commemoration and mourning. In the many eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century images we have of them, they are represented less as small parks than as works in progress, constantly in a state of use and reuse. We see mounds of fresh dirt piled up; the grass is unmowed where it is not disturbed by digging. This is an active, working landscape. The visual image we are given is of a ground heaving with its harvest of the many generations, punctuated by a fragile sign here and there of someone in particular. It is a place—this home of the old regime of the dead—for dead bodies. If there was an epithet over a grave, it was likely to read, HERE LIES THE BODY—hic jacet—as if to add AMIDST THE OTHER DEAD. In contrast, memory, and the phrase in memory of would become the topos of the cemeteries of the new regime, in which the poor were hidden and the prosperous were decorously covered. There were of course exceptions. Some of the great wool churches of the Cotswolds had magnificent outdoor tombs already in the early seventeenth century and maintained a tradition of memorial competition that by the nineteenth century left them looking like well-tended gardens.

When an important nineteenth-century painter takes on the subject of mortality and immortality, the scene is set in a churchyard, not a cemetery. There were no bodies evident in the latter. Henry Alexander Bowler’s The Doubt: ‘Can These Dry Bones Live?’ was painted in 1855 as a meditation on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. A young woman is standing amidst the genteel disrepair of what appears to be a substantial country churchyard (but actually is the churchyard of the London suburb of Stoke Newington). The box tomb on her right has lost its siding, exposing the brick vault beneath; this is the sort of shelter that sparked late eighteenth-century litigation, an effort that went against the nature of the place, that somehow tried to bring order to an individual grave by claiming for it a permanence that some opposed. The stone behind her has sunk almost out of sight; further back, an old-fashioned and short-lived grave board with elaborately carved posts running laterally along the body beneath is visible among a picturesque array of variously angled slabs. She rests her arms on the gravestone of John Faithful and looks onto the disturbed earth of the grave—there is no hint why it is in this condition, but it is almost a trope of churchyard representation. More specifically, she contemplates the skull that is lying there and the femur and bits of ribs that are poking out of the ground. This would have been unthinkable in the new regime of the cemetery. The red brick buttresses and a few windows of the church building itself stand out as if to make the point of a historical continuity of the Christian community of the living and the dead, represented by the field of markers in various stages of decay—its past, by the church that serves the living, and by the visit itself. John Faithful died in 1791, and the woman’s costume makes clear that the scene we are witnessing occurred sixty years later, in the 1850s.

The stark fact of death is counterpoised with the promise of everlasting life: I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE, it says on Faithful’s stone, which we, but not the young woman, see; RESURGAM (I shall rise again) is written on the slab nestled in the ground at the foot of a large, very much alive and growing chestnut tree. Although topologically specific, the painting’s landscape, like that in Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego or the imagined landscape where Ezekiel confronted “dry bones,” is prototypical: the universal country churchyard.

To the visual record of the absence of individual memorials we can add the local knowledge of other, earlier historians. A 1690 record of St. Mary’s, Nottingham, one of the oldest of the town’s parish churches, shows that there were only six memorials in the churchyard. By the early twentieth century, there were in the churchyard no markers from before 1700 and few from the eighteenth century. The history of a church in Petersham, Surrey, makes a similar point. A churchyard that in 1800 was only 100 feet wide and 150 long could accommodate thousands of corpses because before the seventeenth century, coffins were seldom used, and even afterward old bones were shoved out of place as new ones came in. There were no monuments there from before the 1680s. A nineteenth-century historian of Sheffield manages to turn even his three-acre churchyard—then the largest in England—into a version of the one that inspired Gray. He remembers the undulations of the earth marking a community of bodies: “how vivid in remembrance appears the picturesque irregularities of the ground and the gravestones through the halo of seventy years.” Gravestones are almost irrelevant. He is not sure when the first appeared; there is little evidence of them before 1700. There were very few tombs ever, and the earliest extant one, then less than a hundred years old, was from 1776. And despite that by 1869 there were almost three thousand markers, even this number fell immeasurably short, he reminds us, of “representing the number, much less the name, sex, age and condition” of all those with whom we share a common humanity and who have “gone to dust in yonder little plot during more than seven hundred years.”

An early nineteenth-century clergyman, surveying his churchyard, counts the hillocks as he balances two interpretations of the graveyard: as a magazine for the “safe custody” of the dead waiting for judgment, in which some are more comfortable than others—the rich and important, the pretentious, and those blind to the fact that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”; and as a Golgotha, where bones are scattered. He thinks of his community of the dead—176 of them in thirteen years—and wishes that he had served better as their pastor before it was too late.

Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

This is the second of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. © 2015 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.