THE land of the dead is a tricky place: the main guidebooks differ widely in their advice, and those who have travelled there prove annoyingly reticent.
Lucky, then, that we have Carl Watkins, whose “modest bid to raise the dead” charts British beliefs and rituals surrounding death and the afterlife, from medieval ghost stories to the burial rites of the Unknown Soldier. What emerges is a sensitive and fascinating history of an “undiscovered country” which, in many ways, mirrors the story of Britain.
A medieval merchant’s careful preparations for death show some certainties about judgment and remembrance that are missing from the last hours of Henry VIII, “caught, as England was, between two tales about the fate of the dead”.
The ghoulish post- mortem treatment of the corpses of executed criminals in Georgian Britain reflect scientific progress and approaches to deviance: John Horwood was hanged and then dissected in 1821, his skull kept by the surgeon whose testimony had damned him, and his story recorded in a book bound in the felon’s own skin. Much later, William Price’s cremation of his son on a Welsh hillside – and the riots that ensued – illustrates the strange history of modern burial practices and rituals.
One Yorkshire dirge “described the journey the soul would make and spoke of an other-world landscape strangely similar to that of the wild moors”.
By the end of the 18th century, some worried that these stories would disappear along with the landscapes that had sustained them. Watkins tells them again, showing history reflected in the landscapes Britons projected on that other country, just beyond the veil.
Never condescending, Watkins’s even- handed treatment of different beliefs reminds us that even the most seemingly outlandish were often widely held, and deserve better than retrospective dismissal.
If there is one quibble here, it’s that Watkins chooses to end his story after World War 1. Today, our approaches to the end of life remain thorny subjects for archbishops and atheists alike, and the changes and continuities narrated in this excellent and eminently readable history can help us understand where we’re coming from – even if not where we might be going. – The Sunday Telegraph