Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Breaking old ground

Today, I was properly back into the routine of offering the Eucharist for the handful of people who still draw their hope and strength from quiet prayer and communion with God in the heart of the city. It doesn't matter to me how many or how few people there are, it's the fact that the doors to the infinite are open and the invitaton made that matters. It's what defines the value and purpose of there being a church at the heart of the city, no matter what else we do. It's a small point of reference, if anyone wanted to evaluate, regarding what really matters in the world we inhabit.

The sky was bright blue, and for once this year it felt wintery cold. I ventured abroad after the service, camera in hand, to photograph the latest stage in the long careful process of demolishing a third of the city centre's commercial and business heart. This evening, I found myself with a harvest of images of huge powerful machines, bulldozers with powerful pincers and buckets on board for chewing up concrete and steel, a forest of cranes dedicated either to shifting heavy objects around sites being cleared, or else discreetly punching steel girders deep into the ground. Yes, the pile driving technology of today is far quieter than it was in my youthful memory.

Right next door to St John's, work on the south churchyard gathering pace. There's a wooden hoarding creating workspace along the Working Street and Trinity Street sides. It sticks out rather a lot on the Trinity Street side, and is already causing hassles for the fleet of lorries and vans that deliver to Howells, as there is no longer enough room to allow overtaking of vehicles parked to deliver goods. I wonder if the contractors really need so much space on both sides of the churchyard?

There's a small earth moving vehicle (small in comparison to the monsters deployed to crunch up the buildings, that is) at work, carefully taking off layers of soil along the strip that is destined to become the second churchyard path. The first and only existing path dates from 1984. I reckon that wasn't dug by any kind of machine, but by hand, with pick and shovel. No doubt, at that time, a degree of care was required, since they were excavating a passage through places that had graves in which there had been burials within living memory. This path, popularly known as 'dead man's alley' still has grave numbers marked on it with brass figures, although contents interred have long since dissolved in the acid soil, if they hadn't already done do by 1894.

Grave 'ownership' with plots carefully marked in a grid seems to date from the late eighteenth century, some six hundred years, in all likelihood, since the land began to be used for burials. Headstones got moved around, parked far from the plot over which the last rites were pronounced, if there was nobody around to object, or buy a piece of land in which to erect a vault to contain the remains of their dear departed. St John's churchyards have only a handful of vaults and some large monuments that have attracted conservation orders with the passage of time.

In earlier times grave plots were rented out for a period. Later inhabitants were disinterred after a few decades, as is still the practice in other parts of Europe, except that nowadays surviving bones are cremated, rather than gathered into a charnel house in a quiet corner of holy ground to remind passers by of their mortality. Visitors to southern European monasteries and cathedrals may well have been fascinated or offended by seeing artistically arranged collections of disinterred bones in the posher version of the charnel house erected there for the edification of the faithful.

There's a headstone up in the church tower gallery commemorating a Vicar's wife who died in the 18th century. It got transferred into church by someone in the early 19th who, whether they remembered the dear woman or not, felt it wasn't a good idea that this particular memorial, should be turned into a paving stone for a churchyard path, as many others were, to the great fascination of generations of passers by. There have been many more memorials to significant people that have long been lost. Why some survive and others don't is a mystery.

Equally fascinating is the fact that some very famous people, like Calvin and Mozart were buried anonymously in common lime pit graves. Calvin because he wanted there to be no devotional cult around his grave, when that was commonplace; Mozart, because he was too poor for anything else. It makes you wonder about our customs today.

And all these thoughts, triggered by the soil being scraped carefully to forge a path across the churchyard. Most of the monuments have been moved at least once already. Only fragments of bones turn up in the soil nowadays. There hasn't been a burial here for an average lifetime, and the last of the family mourners stopped visiting so long ago that the gates have been locked for decades. Time passes. The details of a host of human lives fades and is forgotten as far as the life we know is concerned. It's not the most comforable of thoughts, but one which any who think themselves of high importance should not disregard. Much about the mystery of human existence and awareness is still unfathomable, even to the eyes of faith. To hope that one day it will all make sense to us is an act of great daring.

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