Isaiah 65: 17-end; Hebrews 11: 32-12.2
All Saints Day 2014 Worcester College Oxford
Alan Bennett’s short story ‘The Laying on of hands’ tells of a memorial service in a central London church built by Inigo Jones. The great, the good and the heartbroken gather for Clive’s memorial. This memorial service like so many began with a well-known actress reading immaculately a piece about death not really being the end but just like popping next door followed by a reading from 1 Corinthians 12 in the rolling cadences of the Authorised Version, swiftly followed by a saxophone rendition of the Dusty Springfield standard, ‘You don’t have to say you love me’. It had been billed as a celebration, the marrying of the valedictory and the festive. Bennet writes ‘ To call it a celebration also allowed the congregation to dress up not down, so that though the millinery might be more muted, one could have been forgiven for thinking this was a wedding not a wake. But some did cry. Bennet comments ‘funeral tears seldom flow for anyone other than the person crying them. They cried for Clive, it is true, but they cried for themselves without Clive. His death meant that he had left them with nothing to remember him by’.
Our society increasingly can’t handle death. My Irish cultural heritage still keeps death within the domestic context with open coffins at home and children becoming familiar with dead bodies from a young age. Whilst many adults – even within this congregation – may not have been so up close with death – its colour, its smell, its cold feel. Yet death has not gone away and further attempts to legislate for its control are unlikely to disappear from public discourse but they are just as unlikely to deliver what many hope for – a way to manage death. We seek out new rituals to try to make sense of death in the modern era. Funerals now straddle the line between celebration and grief – the coffins of celebrities are applauded!
I find myself responsible for the re-interment of King Richard III. He is not a canonised Saint but an anointed child of God. This will take place in Leicester Cathedral next March with the principal service being broadcast live on television. I find myself looking back to the ritual of the 15th century and recognising that it will not do both in terms of the particularities of this story and in the need to address our contemporary reality of death and the hope of resurrection. Note for example that unlike a funeral this is not exactly a ‘goodbye’ but more of a ‘hello’. What symbols or actions or ways of memorialising might cut through our cynical, fearful or technological reliant carapace to help us address our metaphysical wonderings?
We enter the month of November to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. This is the month of reckoning with the thought that we are indeed dust. The Hebrew word Adam comes from the word for mud or soil. We are people of the humus yet in faith we can also shine with the divine light which is eternal and which means that not even the sun or any scorching heat can strike. Shakespeare put it like this – ‘And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then’. This is the real power of All Sainstide – the proclamation of the death of death.
The poet Elizabeth Jennings puts it like this:
We are dust from our birth
But in that dust is wrought
A place for visions, a hope
That reaches beyond the stars,
Conjures and pauses the seas. Elizabeth Jennings, from Dust
The early Christians worked out that they had to change their practice of dealing with the dead if they were to demonstrate what they believed and the practice itself also helped to shape their belief. I recently visited Rome and we went on a tour underneath the basilica of St Peter. There is an extraordinary underworld preserved because Emperor Constantine who colonised the site simply filled the existing architecture with rubble which has now been removed. The early Christians colonised the necropolis, the city of the dead which sat outside the many city of Rome. This was a place shrouded by mystery and far away from everyday life like shopping or eating or entertainment.
The early Christians did this to show a way of embracing death and making it a part of life. They wanted to emphasise the continuing role and place of their departed friends in their midst. The graves of the martyrs and those who have particularly exemplified the faith took on special significance. So churches got built on the sites of these graves and grave yards were built surrounding them. Leicester Cathedral was a medieval parish church with graves right up to the boundary of the building. We’ve found maps showing them to be buried 22 deep in the churchyard. And in the current building works inside the cathedral we’ve gone down five levels of burial in the chancel. We are literally surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The theological belief reshaped the physical environment of the city.
Contrast that with the marking of physical space as we have dealt with mental illness up until fairly recently. You could work out the established ancient edge of a city by the sight of a psychiatric hospital or lunatic asylum. Mental illness regarded as alien is built on the edge of community.
Bringing in a new set of human remains into the middle of a modern multi-cultural city puts us back in touch with this radical Christian practice. King Richard’s tomb thus in addition to being marked with his biographical detail will not just so much celebrate him and his deeds but rather point also to the hope of resurrection. So he will have a human sized stone made of elegant fossil stone – that in itself speaking of transformation. It will rise slightly towards the east in hope of resurrection. And like the stone of Easter morning, cracked by the sacrificial love of the cross, so the tomb will be marked by a cross so that light flows in and through the stone.
John Inge, Bishop of Worcester describes place as ‘the seat of relations and of meeting and activity between God and the world’ (A Christian Theology of Place, Ashgate). He makes the distinction between space and place. Space being purely physical and neutral whereas place is relational and contains memories and embodies values. So Christians marked space to create place by using the iconography of the Saints, those who carry for us the imagery of the eternal life of heaven to differentiate from the purely ordinary and temporal. By doing this they wove the eternal in and around the temporal. We might do well to do likewise to try and reverse our inability to address death and live the hope spoken of in scripture that ….
‘We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, so that we lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,* and run with perseverance the race that is set before us,‘ Hebrews 12:1
© The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester, 2nd November 2014