Book review: The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among The Dead by Carl Watkins

The 'Apocalypse Window' at All Saints church, North Street, York
The 'Apocalypse Window' at All Saints church, North Street, York
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Grotesque to modern thinking, our forebears’ ideas on mortality make for fascinating reading, writes Stuart Kelly

The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among The Dead by Carl Watkins

Bodley Head, 318 pp, £20

There are two snatches of poetry I remember knowing by heart as a child, both of which have a direct bearing on Carl Watkins’ book on our changing relationship with the dead. One was a variant of the Great War “Hearse Song” that my Dad taught me to sing, with the lines “The worms go in and the worms go out / They go in thin and they come out stout” and “Your eyes fall in and your teeth fall out / Your brains come trickling down your snout”.

The other was an epitaph inscription in Kelso which my Mum told me saw her reprimanded as a child for reciting in a sing-song voice: “Remember man as you pass by / As you are now so once was I / As I am now so will you be / Prepare for death and follow me”. I must have been a riot at pre-teen birthday parties. These fragments reflect two of Watkins’ key points. Previous generations were far more conversant with the physical reality of bodily corruption. Death was rarely a private event, and battlefield sites regularly regurgitated corpses.

To reinforce this point, Watkins’ first trip in this part-travelogue, part cultural-history takes him to the tomb of John Baret in Bury St Edmunds, which is decorated not with a statue of him alive but an eerie simulacrum of him dead.

Secondly, the dead were far more with us in years gone by. Philosophy was not about how to live, but how to die, and the dead were exemplars on which to meditate. Moreover, through requiem masses, lit candles and prayers of remembrance, a two-way psychic traffic with the afterlife was established. The prayers of the living sped the soul through Purgatory, and in return the communion of the virtuous dead could intercede on behalf the living. Watkins discerns two radical shifts in our relationship with the dead, one swift and one slow.

Firstly, the Reformation sought to evaporate the post-death edifices of Catholicism. Secondly, the slow erosion of Christianity as the prevailing mindset, a process beginning with the Reformation and culminating in the present day, changed priorities even further. How to deal with corpses was not a question of keeping the cadaver intact for the resurrection at the Last Trump, but a matter of public hygiene.

In investigating these matters, Watkins draws on a wide range of books, monuments and anecdotes, some relatively well known – such as the Phantom Drummer of Tedworth and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – others far less familiar. There is a fascinating section on the Byland Manuscript, a monastic edition of Cicero from around 1400, where the spare leaves have been filled with local ghost stories and which was brought to public attention by the “Father of the English Ghost Story”, MR James. Likewise, the section on William Price, a Welsh doctor and self-proclaimed druid, whose immolation of his dead son’s body changed attitudes towards cremation in Britain, and the section on John Knill, a bachelor who established elaborate commemoration rites (including money for the best packer of pilchards and knitter of nets) and a monument in St Ives to preserve his memory, are fascinating.

Watkins charts, with subtlety and attention to detail, how the breaks often conceal the persistence of ideas. The population of Britain did not stop believing in Purgatory overnight when the State requisitioned their chantries and light-funds. Nor does the “dechristianisation” utterly dispel ideas about death and the afterlife which are more akin to a religious mindset: bereavement cards speak of “a better place” and memorial notices in newspapers are addressed as if the dead themselves might be reading them. Watkins contends that the rise of ghost stories after the Reformation can be attributed to the Reformation: if souls were not in Purgatory (or Heaven, or Hell) then they might be loosed on the world. It is striking how often the rhetoric around death is associated with technological or scientific development. Elizabeth Rowe imagined the joy of souls reaching the afterlife as like those of boat passengers after a long voyage; for Joseph Glanvill, the afterlife was “a new America”. In spiritualist writings from the end of the 19th century, telegraphy is frequently introduced as an image for table-rapping; the discovery of X-rays was taken as proof of other worlds invisible.

Watkins’ study is both very English and very Christian. In some ways this is a benefit: the story of John Horwood of Bristol, given over to dissection after execution, is preferable to another retelling of Burke, Hare and Knox.

But it can be limiting, as well. It would have been interesting to see how Jewish, Muslim and Hindu funeral practices were gradually adopted (particularly in municipal cemeteries). There is perhaps not enough on tombs and commemoration in general: for example, the Blue Plaque scheme, now run by Heritage bodies, was originally set up in 1866 by the Royal Society of Arts. It commemorates the life much more than the location of the mortal remains.

In terms of Englishness, the success of the Reformation means that the discussion of Catholic Christianity does not take into account some of the more baroque continental traditions.

Take, for example, the Capuchin Crypt on the Via Veneto in Rome, with its six altars decorated with the bones of over 4,000 monks. In Innocents Abroad Mark Twain reflected on the monk temporarily acting as tour guide, “The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock … and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.” A grotesque combination of Art Naïf and Grand Guignol, it poses quite a conundrum to simplistic accounts of belief in the resurrection of the body.

Nor does the book deal, really, with the philosophy of dying (although Watkins mentions en passant the atheist Hume’s equanimity on his deathbed, he does not add in Boswell’s frustration at it). The disjunct between philosophical enquiry into death – for example, Wittgenstein’s assertion that “death is not an event in life” – with the emotional impact is unexplained.

This paradox was perhaps never expressed so lucidly as in John Donne’s tenth Holy Sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud”. The poet lists all the reasons why one should not be afraid of death yet leaves the impression of a barely suppressed hysteria he is trying to argue himself out of. No creeping around catacombs can alleviate that.