Graveyards and Crypts

Two Days in London – Friday Aside

Of Crypts & Graveyards

I am intrigued by the notion of crypts. St. Paul’s was the first crypt I was to visit this trip, and it feels somewhat awkward to me to be standing and walking over the long tombstones marking the burial places of saints and sinners long since past. I was aware of, and somewhat disturbed, by the inequity shown to those who have died and been buried there: some crypts and memorial plaques along the walls are clearly off-limits so as not to be damaged or defaced; but innumerable tombstones are being worn away by the shoes of countless visitors just like me. (It’s even creepier when you stop to think that these are the final resting places of others’ human remains!)

St. Paul’s was the second burial place I visited in London. On Thursday, after settling into my hotel in the afternoon and not wanting to journey too far because of the minimal amount of sleep I had had due to the overnight flight, I wandered around Upper Tooting until I came to the churchyard of St. Nicholas. There was an expansive cemetary surrounding the church. Where in Arizona we would have parking, sidewalks, landscaping, and open space, here in the churchyard there were graves upon graves. (There was one smack dab at the bottom of a stairway! I had to wonder if the person buried there had some emotional attachment to the stairs… or had, perhaps, fallen down them!)

Considering the length of London’s history, the densely packed population it has supported for generations (I saw a centuries old map of London that actually color-coded the wealth/class of residents!), and its functionally land-locked status, I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of graveyards and crypts. Or the protected status of many of them by the City itself! In addition to St. Paul’s Crypt, I also discovered myself walking over the final resting places of many good Methodists at Wesley’s Chapel – because the Museum and Bookstore are located directly atop them! With space at such a premium, it seems both practical and necessary for space beneath church buildings to be used for crypts. Still, walking in them just feels… weird

I also (briefly) visited Bunhill Fields, a Dissenter’s graveyard. Because it is in Islington and not London proper, when in use Bunhill Fields was outside the city limits, since none of the Dissenters were legally allowed to be buried within the walls of Town. (Since that time one of the Lord Mayors of London had the cemetary encircled with walls.) I discovered that this is where Susanna Wesley is buried (along with other well-known Dissenters such as Paul Bunyon, William Blake, Daniel Defoe, and several others), with her gravestone visible from the window of Wesley’s study across the road.
In years past, worshiping in congregations in the Midwest or visiting those in the East, I always found the numerous memorial plaques strange. They are not as much of a custom out in the West. However, I think they might be a vestigial trace of the greater memorials that exist in older churches and cathedrals. At St. Paul’s, St. Nicholas, and even Wesley Chapel sculpted effigies, large memorial plagues, and gravestones abound. Like the stone forget-me-nots that bloom in graveyards and memorial gardens, these bear sentiments declaring the good works and familial love of generations past.
I need to go back and review my Journal from my visit to Westminster Abbey in 1997 (and may post an excerpt later); but I wonder if I reflected then on there being a very real sense of “the communion of saints” when one is surrounded both by the likenesses and memorials about the previously departed. Perhaps when worshiping in such a surrounding, one does not notice. But, just as reading Wesley’s sermons or Journal strike a chord in me, reminding me of the driven and passionate faith of those who have come before, I wonder if being in their midst regularly would also instill that sense of carrying a flame that has been burning for so long.

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