All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015

CITY OF THE DEAD

I wandered down to St Pauls the other day to see the protestors camped next to its churchyard.  I sympathise with them but it is rather unfortunate that their presence has caused the Cathedral to be closed for the first time since the Second World War.  
I do like the fact that the Churchmen and the protestors have been engaged in lively debate -  I have often felt the building and the hill upon which it sits to be one of the major psychic centres of London, if not of England. One of the reasons for this and a circumstance that those camping there may not be aware of is the number of dead bodies upon which it sits.  

When Christopher Wren started digging after the Great Fire which destroyed the old cathedral, he discovered layer upon layer of corpses - a compete corporeal cross section through the city's history with recent burials placed over mediaeval graves piled upon the chalk coffins of the Saxons heaped on the pinned shrouds of Dark Age Britons stacked over Roman urns.  Doubtless if he had been able to keep going he would have found prehistoric remains - Ludgate Hill is after all said to have been the site of a Neolithic stone circle.  He may have eventually even come upon the mythical bodies of the giants Gog and Magog long lost in legend.

London is a teetering Necropolis, a veritable honeycomb of the dead.  Countless thousands lie here beneath our feet - one reason no doubt that the present city is almost five meters higher than its Roman counterpart.  Until inner city burials were banned in the mid nineteenth century, everyone who died here was squashed into often tiny parochial cemeteries adjacent to churches.  Even before the horrors of the Black Death and its plague pits, tales abound of body parts being visible just below thin layers of soil in the churchyards, bodies piled upon each other in cellars, left lying in the streets or just thrown into the Thames.  Nowadays of course it's quite costly to even get a place in one of 'The Great Gardens of Sleep" the Victorians built in a ring around the city to stop all that.  Accomodation has always been a problem here - even for the dead.

At this time of year, they sleep lightly it is said.  I trust there will be a few souls floating around at The Real Tuesday Weld's All Hallows show at Westminster library on Saturday . The building has its own ghosts of course - it is Isaac Newton's old house after all.  If I won't see you there and as we are speaking of the afterlife, I hope you enjoy this little film made a little while ago for the song "Heaven Can't Wait

And to quote Orson Welles:

"Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. 
"Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? 
Go on Singing!"
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(The image above is from the wonderful Minotaur exhibition at Waterloo Tunnels)

6 comments:

spillyjane said...

Maybe it's just me, but I can't see chalk being the most practical of materials to fashion one's coffin out of. I suppose wood is similarly (if not more so) prone to decomposition, and clearly chalk would be plentiful and easy to work...hm. I'm sure the Saxons knew what they were doing, but I'd still like to learn more about this.

clerkenwell kid said...

I think when it is squished together it forms a very dense box - like a wholemeal pastry case - but probably not the sort of thing you would want to carry up the hill..

misterquark said...

Quick, get the salt! That's a terrifying and fantastic thought...

clerkenwell kid said...

And the vinegar I think

RaptureOfDecadence said...

This is fascinating. Sadly, Australia doesn't have this degree of history. The closest thing we have I'd say is Toowong Cemetary near the melancholy city of Brisbane

clerkenwell kid said...

"The Melancholy city of Brisbane"... Love that phrase