As a child, I was almost as ghoulish as the young hero of ‘Harold and Maude.’ Although I didn’t go as far as attending funerals, I enthusiastically made heelball rubbings of medieval monumental brasses, and catalogued the gravestones in two or three of the local churchyards in the little East Anglian villages where I grew up as the son of the rector. Churchyards were pleasant, tranquil places, and those stones, some of them two or three centuries old, were full of information about lives long and short, virtues and loves remembered. What I didn’t appreciate as I copied down those inscriptions was that these gravestones were witnesses to a sudden outbreak of self-assertion among our British ancestors around 1700. Previously only the very rich and powerful, like Egyptian pharaohs, or later the English nobility and wealthy clergy, had taken up space in churches and churchyards with big stone monuments. Everyone else made do with at best a wooden plank or marker painted with a few words about the deceased. I saw an early Victorian photo of a churchyard at Croydon in Surrey, which in 1867 was still full of those wooden memorials, looking like lines of low benches or little fences.
This might seem a trivial change, but it wasn’t. Wooden markers gently decayed back into the soil, making way for the next generation of the dead. Stone would not do that: the space was permanently and selfishly annexed by the Georgian, Victorian or later deceased, and cemeteries were frozen in time. I guess you could call it the democratization of tombstones, because it marked an unprecedented moment in history, when far more people than the aristocracy had the money to spend on permanent stone memorials. All over the U.S., you can see the same phenomenon in country churchyards. Indeed, the crowds of stones in American cemeteries often predate their British counterparts, suggesting that a permanent tribute to one’s existence was part of the American Dream as much as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Tombs represent an almost universal human self-indulgence, a longing to perpetuate individual existence, if possible, for ever. Not just Christians have felt that way; the impulse goes right back to the pyramids of Egypt and beyond. For Christians, it’s illogical, because Christianity is based on the principle that there is not much that you and I can do to influence our fate after death; it’s all in the hands of God. In any case, if you believe in life after death, the soul is nowhere near those graves sealed by granite and marble. So in Christian culture, an ornamental grave really is self-indulgence. As I now contemplate those churchyards stuffed with stone, I’m struck by a striking historical parallel: the Industrial Revolution, which from the eighteenth century was fueled by fossil fuels, unreplaceable, one-off power sources. We can draw a moral. Once you’ve filled a graveyard with gravestones, that’s it, short of the ultimate drastic clearance with a bulldozer. And once the fossil fuels have gone, that’s it — only there will be no fuel left for the equivalent of the bulldozer. Shall we listen to those gravestones and hear what they have to tell us about our own self-importance and disregard for generations to come?
Diarmaid MacCulloch is Fellow of St. Cross College and Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford University. His previous book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, was a New York Times bestseller. His latest book Silence: a Christian History (Viking) is on sale now.