As a historian I have long been perplexed by the modern notion that churchyards can be become ‘full’ and that we are running out of burial space for the dead. The idea that our historic churchyards with the marked graves of long-forgotten Victorians and Georgians, cannot be reused for the burial of modern people, is a bizarre notion and is at variance with the traditions and ideas of past generations, including the Victorians and Georgians who now dispossess our generation of the right to be buried in God’s acre. In the past the grave was not considered to be private, alienable property that could be occupied for perpetuity, the churchyard was considered a communal space that individuals borrowed to enable the clean and efficient decomposition of their shrouded corpses. Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard for perpetuity, but the concept that an individual grave space was yours and yours alone, was unknown.
When I was Rector of a benefice in Norfolk, one pleasant September afternoon I went to conduct my first funeral in one if my four medieval churches. My first act as incumbent was to deal with a rather fine specific of a human jaw bone, complete with an excellent set of gnashers, which was presented to me by the churchwardens. After I had conducted the funeral in the churchyard, the jaw bone was popped back into the ground as part of new grave’s infill. That was the way we operated in this church, one of my predecessors had the good sense to start to re-use part of the churchyard that had last been used in the eighteenth century. When new graves were cut the bones of the dead were quite often disturbed and were usually added to the infill of the new grave by the gravedigger to one side of the new coffin. In doing that we were to all intents and purposes following the pattern that persisted in past centuries. The defleshed bones of the long dead, made way for the freshly dead corpses of the current generation. This whole process was both pragmatic and sensible and a churchyard never came to be filled.
In many medieval images of the burial of the dead from illuminated manuscripts you can see such a process being undertaken, though with a bit less dignity and decorum than in my former parish churchyard. In the French images I share on here of that subject matter, the gravediggers manhandle shrouded corpses into their last resting place in a shallow grave, while around the graves, lying on the ground are the skulls and bones of those accidentally exhumed in the process.
Notice in the image above the little painted grave markers that mark the burial place. For both economical and for practical purposes, these were made of wood. Intended to last a generation or two at the most, they lasted just long enough for the deceased pass out of mind. Unlike the stone headstones favoured in the recent past, they were designed to decay and to be temporary.
Rather than returning the bones to the ground as part of the grave infill, it was quite common in the later medieval period, for the bones disinterred during the digging of graves, to be added to a communal bone hole or a structure called a charnel house. …
The bones were originally arranged in heaps against three walls of the chamber. Long bones in stacks, skulls on the tops of each heap. In the Middle Ages the walls of the end wall of the chamber was painted and in the nineteenth century there were still faint traces of an image of the Resurrection of Christ, wonderful fitting for a chamber devoted to those awaiting the general resurrection.
There’s one of these old-style churches in Lewes, Delaware—with its little cemetery in what would be the well-manicured front lawn of a modern suburban church. The Lewes church I’m thinking of looks precisely like what it is—something from another time. I found the description of the burial and charnel house practices of the past shocking, frankly. But maybe some movement toward those practices might help shock us into remembering that it’s not a tidy gravesite that we should look forward to, but rather the resurrection itself. If we’re overly concerned with the former, we’re probably not concerned enough with the latter.