Stiffed

By Waterhouse, Michael | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Stiffed


Waterhouse, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


BURIAL

MICHAEL WATERHOUSE

MICHAEL WATERHOUSE contemplates our gravest concerns

Things have started to look up for death. This year, there have been new books on burial "the green way" and on how to have a good death. A series of fly-on-the-wall documentaries shot in a hospice will soon be on our television screens and, for the very committed, there's an MA course on Death and Society at the University of Reading. We could be forgiven for thinking that people are developing a taste for the subject.

Not to be left out, the Museum of London has mounted a small but fascinating exhibition entitled "Grave Concerns: the disposal of London's dead". The peg is the growing recognition that London is quickly exhausting its burial space. Every year, 60,000 Londoners die and, as things stand, the capital's cemeteries have room for bodies for only seven more years. Grim as this sounds, the situation is nowhere near as bad as that facing Lanjar6n, a small town outside Granada in Spain, where the solitary cemetery has just six plots left and the mayor has apparently declared it illegal to die.

"Grave Concerns" offers a more modest proposal: we may have to consider reusing graves. Since the mid-1970s, people have been able to "own" their plots for a maximum of 100 years; this lease arrangement implicitly acknowledges the principle of reuse, but it has never been acted upon. This exhibition, in its quiet way, asks what all the fuss is about. Regardless of our squeamish resistance to disturbing our loved ones, reuse, if well managed, need not pose a threat to public health.

The exhibition is an eclectic assortment of documents and archaeological finds which, at first glance, do not seem to have much in common, other than reminding us of the sombre truth that death comes to us all, as it has in all ages. Well worth looking at are the grave goods from the Roman cemetery at Spitalfields, which include some fine glassware and jet jewellery. There are also Bronze Age beakers, Stuart mourning rings and various cremation urns, ancient and modern. But at the centre of the exhibition space, confronting you as you walk in, is a large, self-assembly cardboard coffin. Only then does it click: together, these diverse items encapsulate the arguments that have shadowed funerals throughout history. Who are they for - the living or the dead? What is the function of the graveyard? Who decides what happens at a funeral?

People have never been able to agree on the answers. The Romans forbade burial within the city walls to prevent contamination of the inhabitants. Once Christianity had become established, the churches became responsible for funerals, and bodies were buried in their churchyards, in the midst of the living. While cremation was the usual means of disposal in the Bronze Age, for Christians it was incompatible with the physical resurrection, and was therefore condemned until well into the 20th century. This most important of rites of passage has always been fraught with contradiction, and as funerals have become more elaborate and expensive, so it has been less and less credible that we perform this rite for the dead.

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