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Struck by an idea, or was it a headstone?

WHEN I DIE and they lay me to rest I won't be in a position to care whether I have a headstone or epitaph. "Just put my ashes in a hole in the garden next to Edmund the Oranda,'' I once said to Secondborn, owner of the aforementioned speciality goldfish, now deceased. She thinks I'm a bit mad. But, quite clearly, there are some inhabitants of this planet who think it is extremely important to leave a marker for posterity of their existence.

I was struck by this over the weekend when we decided to give York Minster a thorough going-over.

We left Firstborn in his student house doing studenty things because he's of the 'no churches, no museums' persuasion. Secondborn came along because she likes history and didn't want to be left in the student house.

The resplendently Gothic Minster is absolutely stuffed with the remains of people who commissioned elaborate effigies and tombs for themselves and their loved ones.

At least, we assume they were loved ones but no-one tells the absolute truth on gravestones. They're all 'dearly beloved' and 'much mourned', 'pious' and 'humble'. No-one says 'Here lies John, who was a pain in the neck'.

Although I don't have a religious bone in my body, I love visiting cathedrals and have a 'collection' that began with Durham (often visited during my childhood in the North East) and includes Rheims, Chartres, Notre Dame, the fabulous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and Westminster Abbey.

My fascination for these edifices was enhanced by reading Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, which appeared in the BBC's top 100 books a few years ago. I have since read the follow up, World Without End, and enjoyed it immensely. These novels describe the times in which the great cathedrals of Europe were erected and follow the trials and tribulations of an architect and his family. The books are works of fiction, but it's impossible to read them without admiring the skills and determination of our ancestors. They believed they were building a small piece of heaven on earth and it's difficult today to walk around one of the medieval cathedrals without feelings of awe and wonder - not about heaven, but about how they actually managed this feat. And why they went to all the trouble.

In fact, an exploration of the crypt museum in York reveals that for the first 300 years Christians believed that God is omnipresent and therefore there was no need to build holy places for worship. It was the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, an interfering pair, who began the whole church-building programme that continues today. They were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman temples and, no doubt, thought their new religion ought to go one better. York Minster is actually built on the site of the old Roman basilica and subsequent Norman cathedral. It has an interesting archeological story.

But it is the tombs that exert a morbid fascination: the final resting places of people with names such as Albinia and Pelsant.

Some tell little stories, like that of Lady Mary Hope who died in York on her way to Scarborough where she was going 'for her health.' She was just 22 when the grim reaper called in 1795. If only she'd made it to the East coast in time.

Then there's the tale of Roger of Ripon, whose claim to fame was more than having an alliterative name. A 13th century clerk, he was struck on the head by a chunk of falling Minster masonry. It was, they said, a miracle he didn't die. The incident became known as the Miracle of St William of York because it occurred during the singing of a matins for the saint.

The chunk of stone was subsequently inscribed and kept in the Minster. Upon the Reformation, however, it was unceremoniously chucked out into the streets. By another miracle it was rediscovered in 1867 and today enjoys its rightful place back in the Minster. And, by the way, it's a jolly big chunk of stone and it IS a miracle that Roger survived.

But, the most important thing we can learn from gravestones is that life is really very short indeed. There's nothing quite like seeing lots of graves to make one come over all philosophical. It's also worth pointing out, that if you're going to go to the trouble of having an epitaph it should be used to say something interesting. In the future there will be nosey people like me who want to know who you REALLY were.


YORK MINSTER: The tombstones make interesting reading
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Nov 21, 2009
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