“Have you found anything unexpected?” people sometimes ask me, now we’re digging down under the crossing and choir. And usually I reply: “Not so much unexpected – but certainly interesting.” Because we did expect to make some interesting discoveries beneath the floors last laid down in the late 1920s, when Sir Charles Nicholson redesigned the inside of St Martins Church to make it more like what he and the then Provost, Frederick MacNutt, felt a Cathedral should be. And discover them we have.
For a start there are a lot of memorial stones. The new floor was laid over the top of them, so rendering their purpose – to bring to mind the story of those they commemorate – obsolete. Our new floor was planned without reference to these, so we’ve taken them up, and are holding them to one side, pending decisions what their destination should be. Some of them are echoed in plaques on the walls: others are not. So the early 20th century dealt with the mid 19th. Names that meant a lot in their day consigned to the underfloor of history!
But it’s not just Richard III who people have wanted to bury in the ground beneath the Cathedral. Over the centuries, many people’s remains have been laid to rest beneath these floors. And in our digging we’ve discovered two compete vaults, complete with coffins. One has clearly already been disturbed, if not by Nicholson, then probably by Brandon, in his work in the mid 19th century. The other, up in the sanctuary area, looks as though it is still as it was when its sole coffin was laid in it. A coffin whose nameplate recording the occupant can still be made out: Rachel Walker. She died in the early 1800s, and there’s no clear record of her elsewhere in the building. Though other more masculine Wakers are commemorated on the walls around! Which itself says something about what we think we should choose to remember, and why.
When we created Cathedral Gardens outside, we came across a fair quantity of human remains – for the overwhelming part partial and unidentified – and laid them back to rest in the ground from which they came. These vaults are deep enough to be spanned across and these coffins can now be left undisturbed. But it does make you think about what future generations will think of the things – and people – we wish to be remembered now, in the early years of the 21st century. It’s a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s ever sat in a graveyard and deciphered inscriptions and epitaphs. Who were these people and what were they really like? What would we think of them if we were alive then? What would they make of us today?
Of curse we also like to remember people on their birthdays. Ad this week saw the birthday of Richard III (2nd October, for hose who didn’t know). At least one Ricardian found her way into the Cathedral on Thursday, and stayed for our lunch-time eucharist – and flowers were seen on the steps of the statue in the Gardens outside. And when it comes to that one whose remains go back into the Cathedral earth next spring, we might reckon we know more of his life than most. Or do we? Because however much the life of Richard III has been pored over, interpreted and re-interpreted, still we’re left wondering – what was he really like? I’m minded of the saying that begins L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” I think perhaps the further removed we are from actually knowing someone in life, the more our ‘remembering’ has much of the character of personal construct and wishful thinking.
And inevitably that will bring us to wonder what others will remember of us, once our time has been and gone. All our lives are plays in which we are the central character. But what will the audience make of it? And of course the audience itself is fickle and transient. As Christians, there is, we believe, One who sees all our play-acting, and judges all our inner characters. He knows the truth of King Richard III as well as that of Rachel Walker as well as that of me. And you.
Maybe when all this is over, it will help a few more people take that truth a bit more seriously.