Ghosts Stay Near Home


On History

In the third of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur looks at the life and afterlife of the churchyard in literature.

John Constable, The Church Porch, East Bergholt, 1810.

In 1806, England’s greatest landscape painter, John Constable, began a series of drawings and oil sketches of the church and churchyard of East Bergholt in the Stour Valley of Sussex, the village in which he had been born. In one of these, a man and two women gather around a tomb and look intently at an inscription that we cannot quite read. Those who saw the final painting would have known the allusion. An engraving published as the frontispiece to a collection of epitaphs the same year makes it explicit: the girl with her back to us blocks most of the text, but we can make out “Here rest / A Youth.” Anyone in the early nineteenth century would have been able to fill in the missing words:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth,
A Youth, to fortune and to fame unknown

from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). They would not have needed the words; any picture of a churchyard evoked Gray. The “Elegy” was an immediate success when it was published and remained resonant for at least two centuries. “Poem of Poems,” Edmund Gosse, the late nineteenth-century man of letters called it in his English Men of Letters book about Gray. Line for line, it has given more words to the English language, according to the attributions in the Oxford English Dictionary, than any other source; it was probably recited by more schoolchildren in the nineteenth century than any other; it was continually translated—thirty-three times into Italian alone by 1850. It was endlessly reprinted and anthologized in English. 

The “Elegy” stands in a long history of elegiac poetry and is also one of a genre of poems, hugely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that taught English people how to feel and speak about churchyards. Among the first are Edward Young’s immensely popular “The Complaint or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality” (1742–1745) and Robert Blair’s “The Grave” (1741). Both revel in the pleasures of melancholy, the terrors of the tomb, and, especially in Young’s case, a certain melodramatic hysteria occasioned by death and mourning. (William Blake’s twelve illustrations to an 1805 edition of “The Grave” were his most popular work in the nineteenth century.)

These poems, and many more in the same genres, were critical in defining the emotional attraction of the old regime of the dead for the generations that followed: when nineteenth-century reformers spoke of the gloom of the churchyard, they meant the gloom that the so-called graveyard poets evoked and encouraged. And when they blasted the churchyard as a place of “preternatural fear and superstition,” they correctly understood that these intensely local places were where (as Blair writes in “The Grave,” lines twenty-four to twenty-six) the not-quite-gone dead lingered:

Where well healed ghosts, and visionary shades
Beneath the wan, cold moon (as fame reports)
Embody’d thick, perform their mystic rounds.

The Souls of the Dead appear frequently in Coemiteries,” writes Addison (by which he meant churchyards). They “hover about the Places where their Bodies are buried, as still hankering about the old brutal Pleasures, and desiring again to enter the Body.” Ghosts stay near home: houses, pubs, the crossroads at which they were wrongly buried, and, most obviously, the parish churchyard.

But Thomas Gray’s “Elegy” stands apart. It is not our task to understand why it seemed so fresh and resonant to generation upon generation of readers but only to recognize that it did and that its literary vigor had historical consequences. Abraham Lincoln told a journalist that everything anyone would want to know about him could be found in one line of Gray’s poem: “The short and simple annals of the poor.” Part of the ideological novelty of the poem is its insistence that the humble dead have as much of a claim as do the great to live on in the imagination of posterity and in the ground of the churchyard. The poem recognizes that not everyone shares this view. Its voice is a recognizable view: that of eighteenth-century sympathy, of a certain bourgeois optimism that recognizes social distinction but embraces the possibility that virtue will or could have its just reward:

Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

The youth in the engraving made from a Constable painting might have made his fortune and been known if death had not cut him short. We are here on the threshold of the Napoleonic “Field Marshal’s baton in every knapsack,” imagined in a churchyard elegy. It is also a poem of seductive mysteries and shadowy interlocutors: Who is the mourner? Who is the nameless peasant? What lives might these dead have lived in a world other than that into which they had been born?

Richard Bentley, frontispiece to “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 1753.


J. Raw, frontispiece to A Select Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions, 1806.

More important to our understanding are the ways in which the “Elegy” represents the churchyard as a visible, socially and juridically defined, narrowly bounded, hierarchic parish community of the dead through time. It, more than any other work of literature, law, or religion, both shaped and articulated the sensibilities of a very wide swath of English men and women as the old regime gave way to the new in terms of where in fact the dead came to rest. It was the world “we have lost” and yet never lost entirely. The poor in this vision were as important to the churchyard as it was to them. They were the collectivity, constitutive of it and of the community it claimed to represent. Gray and those who read him understood this. We know, of course, that it is not quite correct when the poet says,

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid.

The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

They were all jumbled together, the rude ancestors, but they were seen to be there in the contours of the ground and felt to be there through verse.

George Crabbe, in a widely popular and much-praised poem, is closer to what modern archeology confirms about how the rude ancestors were actually “forever laid”: they were not.

Him now they follow to his grave, and stand
Silent and sad, and gazing hand in hand;
While bending low, their eager eyes explore
The mingled relics of the parish poor.

It turns out to be nearly impossible to do a stratigraphic analysis of churchyard excavation precisely because, over the centuries, the “narrow cells” of the rude ancestors—and even those less rude—were frequently cut into and overturned. What the poet saw is what we imagine from contemporary topographical art:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap.

Constable, as well as artists before and after him, knew their Gray. The “Elegy” is thinkable only within the space of the old regime dead; it follows from the religious, legal, and cultural history, a history that could be and was read on the ground and, in the succeeding centuries, in poetry.

Change was also read into the world that Gray bestowed on readers. For example, the criticism of distinctions within the community of the dead—the increase in burials within the church building and of monuments, for example—became a way of articulating what some imagined as a sadly dying moral order. The eponymous heroine of the best-selling Goody Two-Shoes (1765) ordered that she be buried in the churchyard without an inscription on her stone, like the unknowns that Gray imagines. In this wish, she stands in contrast to the proud Lady Ducklington who “squandered away, [money that] would have been better laid out in little books for children, or in milk, drink, and clothes for the poor” than in a tomb and obsequies. She did not rest well, or in any case not solemnly. The day of her burial was a farce. Her interment was delayed because of its excessive pomp; at four in the morning the church bells started to ring; some thought it was her “ghost dancing among the bell ropes.” Goody cleared up the mystery: she went into the vault and trod on Lady Ducklington’s coffin; she saw no ghost; she was locked inside the church and raised a ruckus to get attention. Among her many virtues, Goody was not superstitious. That said, these were the circumstances under which a ghost might appear to the more gullible: Lady Ducklington’s was a body out of place. “And oh! how needless when the woe’s sincere,” writes the poet Crabbe about another proud landlord:

Slow to the Vault they come with heavy tread,
Bending beneath the Lady, and her lead …
Ungenerous this, that to the Worm denies,
With niggard-caution, his appointed Prize.

The trope of contrasting burials—the virtuous humble burial with a modest or “a moldering mound” and the overweening pompous burial inside the church or under an ostentatious monument outside—became more ideologically charged in the eighteenth century in ways it had not been before. No longer just a sign of the failure to appreciate the democracy of the grave—the common fate of bodies as food for worms—or the transience of fame, it became a way of representing the breakdown of an imagined parish community whose existence through time was vouchsafed by the dead at its center. The centrality and longevity of Gray’s “Elegy” in the English literary canon bears witness to the ongoing power of the old regime. It never really ended.

Charles Darwin wanted to be buried in his village churchyard, and the dean of Westminster Abbey would have been just as happy if he had had his wish. But he did not. The world of science needed him in the Abbey. Thomas Hardy too wanted to lie in his village churchyard: Stinsford in his native Dorsetshire. But he too “belonged to the nation” and, after much controversy, he had two funerals: his heart was buried in Stinsford and his cremated ashes in Poets’ Corner. Intimate local places of the dead did not die in the imagination even as great new cosmopolitan ones rose to prominence.

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 third 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.