People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 2

So, if you have been on the webbernet over the last few days, you have no doubt seen a story about jewelled saints’ skeletons sent by the Pope to bolster Catholicism in Germany. And they look pretty amazing!

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Of course, these are far from the only completely mental medieval reliquaries; they’re just articulated and therefore mess with our sense of propriety somehow. But viewed with the correct perspective, many other medieval forms of venerating a saint are also unbelievably fucked-looking. 

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Skull from one of the two rival bodies of St Valentine.

 

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St Yves, apparently.

Bling all the hell over the place is just what a proper medieval church looks like. Consider if you will the hanging crown or votive crown. Kings would offer these to churches as offerings of thanks or demonstrations of favour or whatever. The best ones are from Spain, part of the Treasure of Guarrazar. They are amazing. I was going to say they were gorgeous, but by most modern aesthetic standards they’re actually hideous. Just vulgar as hell. But they’re gloriously vulgar. 

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Encrusted with sapphires and all hanging with gold and shit, this is the crown of king Recceswinth, a Visigothic Spanish ruler. The hanging letters read RECCESVINTUS REX OFFERETActually, it says ECCESVINTUS, one of the Rs having fallen off at some point since the Dark Ages, but whatever. You get the idea. 

But reliquaries aren’t just for the middle ages. There are also some modern artists doing examples of the form that are baller as hell. This is Al Farrow’s “Reliquary for the Extended Family”. 

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I want one. You know, for my mantelpiece. Except my mantelpiece is already covered in toy robots. 

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People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 2

The vicar of Little Stukeley

It might have been Great Stukeley, actually. 

Many years ago now, I was asked to appear on BBC Cambridgeshire doing a segment about burial practice. They took me to whichever Great Stukeley and had me stand in front of these Roman-era burial mounds they have there and talk about how people were buried. It was kind of odd because I was there, standing next to them … but we were on the radio. I’m sure it made sense to the producer in some way, but it didn’t make any to me. 

After the recording, we went out to lunch, and with us was the vicar of Great Stukeley (or possibly Little Stukeley), who was a nice guy, probably around my age. I don’t really remember anything about him except that he had very good hair and cool glasses, and I think I mentally filed him under “cool vicar.” And like all cool priests, he was really interested in the topic, so we talked about it. 

And he was critical — I mean, sympathetically, understandingly critical — of what he saw as a bad tendency toward individuality and self-expression in funerals. He talked about the music that people chose to play; the most popular choices, he told me, were [some sentimental pop song of the time] and “My Way.” And he looked a little concerned, and he said: “but it’s not about doing it your way, is it? It’s about doing it Christ’s way.”

Now, I’m sympathetic to his plight. Here he is, the local representative of the National Religion of Non-Dogmatic Theism, and he wants to talk about something a little more like Christianity, while most of his parishioners see him as a kind of civil functionary whose job is to perform some kind of emotionally fulfilling closure ceremony. It’s a tough world for a keen young cleric. But from my I-love-funerals position, what I love is that some of his parishioners would include grave goods

He told me that he’d heard this kind of rolling, clanking sound as one of his parishioners was taken away in the coffin. When he asked the mourners, they informed him, confidentially, like, that the deceased had been provided with some of his beloved Guinness to see him through the afterlife. What was the poor vicar going to do? I assume that when you do a theology degree and get sent to Little (or Great) Stukeley, the last thing you expect to encounter among your congregation is heathenism

It made me think, as many things did in those days, of the pioneering research of Mike Parker Pearson. To grossly over-simplify, in the Olden Dayes people believed that what you found in a grave signified what people thought the afterlife was going to be like — probably because this is what the ancient Egyptians loudly insisted? I dunno. In the 20th century, archaeologists, particularly in America, began to get into the idea that it was something more than that. It was about displaying your wealth and social status in a big old event so people would know what a big deal you were. They constructed elaborate systems for determining a society’s complexity by the number of different levels of social hierarchy implied by the goods in graves and all that. 

Now, if you stop and think about this for ten minutes, you’ll see that it’s horseshit on its face, but I think they didn’t really know what else they could do with this data. So along comes Parker Pearson and he delivers, in a single article, an axe kick to this whole theory. He studies burials in modern Cambridge and identifies that — surprise, surprise — not only is there no correlation between social status and how elaborate your burials were, but in fact there’s some inverse correlation, with marginal groups like Travellers and carnies having these very big and splendid funeral monuments. 

And there are like ten different points implicated here that I don’t have time to go into, but I’m going to talk about two because one lets me use some photographs and the other relates back to the vicar. 

OK. Photo one first. Here is an image of Winston Churchill’s funeral: 

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Now here is a photo of Winston Churchill’s grave: 

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(Sir Winston Churchill’s Grave, Bladon, by Neil Hanson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0)

Enh? Enh? 

The other thought was that this was a great example of the ways in which ideology in burials was all weird and contested and mixed up by the different people who participated in it, people who were all part of what from our high level archaeologists would call the same culture. 

Eh, blah blah death, blah blah funerals, blah blah beer cans. The point of the story is the poor vicar with his agenda running smack bang into the murky world of using pop culture and consumer bullshit to cope with the worst feeling you’ll ever have. 

 

The vicar of Little Stukeley