Book Review: The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead

The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3 by John Martin 1789-1854Is there life after death? What happens to the body, and the soul, after death? The Undiscovered Country by Carl Watkins, a medieval historian, explores these biggest of questions and asks how our beliefs surrounding these issues affect the rituals we practice after a death. This is, I’ll admit, not the cheeriest of subjects, but it’s written with such enthusiasm and depth of research that it’s difficult not to enjoy the book.

Watkins’ idiosyncratic approach is to discuss the topic of death and the body chronologically whilst moving around the British Isles giving examples of different treatments of the corpse. Opening with a discussion of the fall from popularity of John Martin’s enormous, vivid picture ‘The Great Day of his Wrath’ (1851-3) as belief in hell became less widespread, the book covers a great deal of ground. I’m researching graveyard poetry – such as Gray’s ‘Elegy’ – and consequently have been thinking quite a bit about ways in which we memorialise, reflect on and anticipate death, and reading this book helped me to crystallise some of my thoughts as wBury-St-Edmunds-1697ell as entertaining me with some anecdotes and little histories. For example, while I know that the Reformation changed a great deal in Britain, including ways of worship and the rites of death, I hadn’t really thought about it in the detail Watkins offers: suddenly, if not quite overnight then still rapidly, Purgatory didn’t exist any more. For the reformers, this was obvious and they had seen it coming; for working-class worshippers a long way from London, this was a horrible shock. It became illegal to say prayers for the souls of the dead, which seemed spiritually wrong, if not blasphemous, to many. It also put severe pressure on the church, which no longer received the same level of donations and sponsored chantry chapels, since while the dead could be remembered, to pray for their release from Purgatory was forbidden.

Tomb_of_the_Unknown_Soldier_8The end of Purgatory also meant, in many ways, the ‘death’ of ghosts and spirits. If hauntings were carried out by souls trapped in Purgatory, who required freeing in some way, then suddenly they were vanished too. Examples of early hauntings and their possible interpretations abound in this book, and provide interesting examples of how the belief in the afterlife reflects different tenets of theology as well as other social mores. One’s view on the issue of the resurrection of the body was also reflected in the treatment of the corpse after death, with a widespread belief that the body should be buried intact in holy ground to ensure its reunion with the soul at its resurrection (hence the punishment of burial in non-sacred ground for suicides and criminals).

Moreover, Martin Luther’s insistence that salvation was through faith rather than good works altered the approach to death of many worshippers. Memorials were now perhaps less memento moris, exhorting others to remember their own approaching death with massive tombs, cadaverous statues, and for the wealthy, alms to the poor. Yet such transitions in belief did not come easily, as Watkins explains, using historical examples to illustrate his points.

From Yorkshire to Cornwall, the book goes on to explore the desire of humans to be remembered; how the loss of faith means that different rites may be observed, and how cremation gradually became socially respectable. In a chapter on edwardVictorian spiritualism and its religious purposes we are offered space to reflect on how supposedly scientific advances might combine with religious belief to provide a new story of the afterlife – a way of contacting the dead, both for enhancing earthly wisdom and for consolation for the bereaved. A strength in this and many other chapters is that while some of the ideas expressed may be outlandish to modern minds, Watkins does not judge or mock such a serious subject. The book concludes with the Great War and its mass-memorialisation of a generation of dead men, an interesting exercise in national mourning which encompassed a wide range of beliefs. And as Watkins explains, although the social and religious milieu in which we now live (and die) is very different to that of earlier times, ‘the emotional need for a narrative about the dead remains.’

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