The Undiscovered Country or how the Dead have a will of their own

Carl Watkins, a medieval historian at Cambridge, has written a marvellous book about dying, death and the dead across the ages in England (with a side excursion to Wales) from the Medieval period to the First World World. It is accomplished by the quality of its writing, its choice of illustrative story and its generosity of spirit. This latter enables you to sense what each, changing, perception of death truly meant to that cast of particular protagonists in their time and place.

So, for example, we start in the Middle Ages.  Here a belief in purgatory and the journey of the dead from first dilemma to hoped for bliss, meant that the task was to secure active remembrance, informed by prayer, for the transiting soul. A whole panoply of mechanisms grew up to ensure this. The sculptured tomb in a church reminded the viewer of their mortal state and elicited sympathetic prayer for the depicted's post mortem state. The dead party offered a variety of good works - repairing and naming a gate, opening an almshouse or distributing bread to the poor - to keep them in the praying eye. And, the professional apparatus of chantry and guild that kept masses and prayers circulating to the benefit of the generous dead.

All of which was disrupted by the Reformation. Salvation being by faith alone, it became 'instantaneous'. Purgatory disappeared. You were either destined for heaven or hell and no post-mortem help was possible. Yet no rupture is ever complete. You could still remember the dead in your prayers but now the efficacy was not their eternal destiny but a recapitulation of their virtue as a stimulus for your own.

The book beautifully illustrates that what we believe will shape, at the least, how we interpret what we see and, at the most, what we actually do see. Our responses to dying, death and the possibilities of an afterlife do shift as our patterns of belief and expectation change. Yet strikingly through the book, you also notice that, first, certain patterns of belief, however differently tinged, persist and that the dead themselves, in spite of the latest 'theory', continue to behave with stubborn consistency.

Thus, purgatory having been 'abolished' by goodly Protestant theologians keeps reappearing - both in the stubborn folk traditions around burial that imagine that what you do in terms of burial matters to the future of the deceased and, more explicitly, in the nineteenth century the birth of spiritualism imagines that post mortem survival provides and demonstrates opportunities for a renewing conscious life beyond the grave.

Thus too ghosts (in varied guises) continue to behave in manners continuously consistent, irrespective of the theologies that swirl around them, indeed ghosts seem happily resistant to our expectations and beliefs, behaving as they have always done, for good or ill. It rather reminds me about a moment in Stephen King's 'Salems Lot' where the local priest is earnestly questioning the validity in 'modern thought' of evil just as he is being swallowed up by the vampire!

This is social and cultural history of a high order. It describes the phenomenon of how death has been seen across the span of a given history allowing for that testimony to speak for itself, leaving the audience to reflect on what it may mean for their own understanding both of the past and the reality that each person will face, namely their own death.


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