The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead

January 24, 2013

In a simple four-line verse, the Victorian poet Elizabeth Siddal asks three profoundly moving questions: “How is it in the unknown land?/Do the dead wander hand in hand?/Do we clasp dead hands and quiver/With an endless joy forever?”

Although its title references Shakespeare, or possibly Star Trek, rather than Siddal, Carl Watkins’ book takes up the same theme of death’s unknowability in a post-Reformation world. In a chronological account from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, he explores popular beliefs about what happens to humans after death, to their bodies, their spirits, their souls.

Before the 1540s, Christian beliefs about death were dominated by visions of the Day of Judgement, the weighing of souls, Purgatory, and the final journey to Heaven or Hell. Donations to churches and chantries, made in anticipation of the inevitable end, supported an industry of praying for the dead, asking God to lead them out of Purgatory and into the everlasting safety of Heaven.

The main effect of the Reformation was to do away with any certainty regarding the fate of the dead. Medieval superstitions were banished, images of doom whitewashed over, commemorations of the dead prohibited, and Heaven reimagined as Hamlet’s “undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns”. Yet remnants of pre-Reformation belief survived well into the 17th century. The mystery plays, whose cycle included the Day of Judgement, were performed in York during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the antiquarian John Aubrey, born in 1626, recorded Yorkshire traditions of wakes and dirges marking the soul’s journey to Purgatory.

Civil war in the 17th century saw the rise of Nonconformist religions that revived older ideas about life after death. Elizabeth Singer, born into a family of dissenters in 1674, commemorated the death of her young husband with fictional letters written between those in Heaven and those left on Earth, as if from another country. As Watkins says, “Trade and global empire … made new sense of the ancient figuring of death as a passage.”

The 18th and 19th centuries brought a scientific aspect to debates about body and soul. While Protestant doctrine taught that the fate of one did not affect the other, funerary rituals focused on the body and the importance of a Christian burial, marked by ever-more-elaborate gravestones. Post-industrial cities provided the economic base for spiritualism and body-snatching, and villages were full of hauntings and folkloric superstitions that kept the dead alive. Although the concept of Purgatory had gone, the cult of memory lived on, most poignantly in the monuments and cemeteries commemorating the Great War, with which the book ends.

This is an impressive tapestry of social history, woven around specific individuals whose lives bear witness to beliefs about the dead, people such as William Price of Llantrisant who, in 1884, conducted the first recorded cremation upon his dead baby’s body, to the horror of his neighbours. It is a very English book, and a very Anglican one, evoking a timeless landscape of villages and churches where “ordinary” people lived and died. For a readable book about death and the afterlife, however, it is surprisingly thin on doctrinal matters. English Catholicism seems not to have existed after 1547, and the focus on a few individuals precludes a wider angle on social change. An element of nostalgia prevails for a lost English past of simple beliefs and homespun rituals, as if the “undiscovered country” is not only the land of the dead but the lost land of a nation’s history.

The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead

By Carl Watkins

The Bodley Head, 336pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781847921406

Published 17 January 2013

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