“So Many Dead Lie Round”: Monuments
Graveyards and graves are endlessly fascinating to me—the ways we celebrate and memorialize lives. Often, I like best the ones that are anonymous, with just a stone or religious symbol left to mark the resting place of someone long forgotten. Moss, a visiting robin or grackle, untended ivy, only increase the Gothic mood of such tombs, and I wonder what ghosts invisibly occupy the air around them. No names, no biographies. Just the wind and the sky above.
Taking on death—it’s the task we all have ahead of us, and sometimes tombs act as vivid reminders that everyone decays, that we’re all piles of bones on the inside.
In the case of some bodies, lost for ages in the acid of boggy time, the solid parts go first, leaving a sack of leathered, disfigured skin. Lindow Man, now encased in the British Museum, lies on a bed of temperature- and humidity-controlled rubble, still wearing his hair and the rope that might have killed him but emptied of all his bones and stripped of the name he had when he landed in that dark place.
Knights and ladies bear their names, their clothes and precious possessions, their pets and children. Princes lie in effigy. Kings have their mammoth royal statues, and the queens who luckily remained undisgraced are laid to rest in elegant boxes (though Jane Seymour’s heart might have been removed to remain forever at Hampton Court).
We build, if we can, great monuments to ourselves. I think of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s right-hand man, who accumulated such wealth in the early sixteenth century that he began to fashion for himself a life reminiscent of Italian nobles and church leaders. Great houses and a tomb to rival the king’s. He was a man of God. He was successful. He was unforgettable.
And yet, for all of his cunning and political savvy, Wolsey was not able to deliver the divorce that Henry wanted, and his death was probably lonely, likely painful and ignominious, perhaps a suicide on the way to his trial (and certainly not the spectacular self-inflicted throat-cutting of the TV series The Tudors; if he did himself in, it was probably the invisible way: with poison).
We all try to make ourselves immortal. We want tombs dedicated to our memory, and now many of us are engaged in endless chronicling of the trivia of our lives. How many pictures on Facebook will we need to keep our memories alive, to keep count of how “liked” we are? Here’s a picture of me as a grade-schooler. Here’s a picture of me having my exercise. Here’s a picture of my pet being adorable. Here’s a picture of what I ate today. Here’s a picture of where I ate today. Do you like me? Do you really, really like me? Are you my friend or my “friend”? Will you comment on me, praise me, sympathize with me?
Will you remember me, the way I want to be remembered? Will you remember me as kind, sensitive, thoughtful, and wise?
We all want to be here, still, after we’re gone, but we want to shape the memories. We want to be admired. Liked. Looked at. Loved. We don’t post our failures or our cruelties, the ugly truths about our actions and ambitions that we tried to side-step, the relationships we killed or maimed. We don’t confess. We make monuments to the parts of truth to which we will admit. And yet, there sits the great, imposing tomb of the respected and much-decorated Cardinal Wolsey, lying in a place of pride in the crypt of St Paul’s. And it may be the strongest memento mori of all. Who lies in that spectacular box, that glorious monument to the greatness of self, after all? He worked hard, he would have said. He earned it. He was a church man. But what we remember of Wolsey is often that solitary death after great shame. Even his coffin was taken from him. It’s not Wolsey lying in there. It’s a military man, a man of war: Lord Nelson.