Tombs on cathedral floors…
I craned my neck to marvel at the grandeur of the Gothic 225-feet high western twin towers of the 700-year old Westminster Abbey. Steps away, across the road, were the stately Big Ben and the illustrious Houses of Parliament. It was difficult to decide which was more impressive…London’s premier worship portal or the political powerhouse.
Inside the Abbey, eyes glued around and overhead, we gawked at the splendour of the 100-feet tall cloisters, the extraordinary chandeliers, the exotic stained glass windows, the ornate vaulted ceiling, the ancient wall paintings, and the medieval coronation throne.
Until the moment a couple near us stopped short in their tracks to peer at the floor. What???? Lost in my fascination with the walls and the ceiling, I had completely missed the ground under my feet, covered with dozens of tomb markers!! No one else seemed to be bothered about strolling over the graves! I signalled to Vikas and he nodded solemnly, he had just noticed too.
The grave markers or ledger-stones, as they are called, were apparently quite common in the floors of cathedrals and churches during 17th and 18th century in England, Wales and much of Europe. The stones laid in the floor above the actual tomb individual usually carried inscriptions…name, epitaph, dates, coat of arms, and decorative signs.
Big culture shock. So this was completely acceptable then? Hardly respectful…we were walking over their bodies after all! I wanted to step aside, but there was no way I could do that without stepping over at least some of the tombs. So, I quickened my pace and crossed over as fast as I could without seeming creeped out…reading some of the names as I passed. Most were worn from the traffic of people, their inscriptions faded and readable, some stones damaged, weakened and cracking.
Later, we learnt that there are 450 tombs and monuments in Westminster Abbey and that for several hundred years anyone who could afford the cost could be buried in the Abbey, until they started restricting it to public figures. Other than royals like King Edward III, King Lawrence Olivier, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I, this is the final resting place of 3,000-plus people including notable playwrights, poets, scientists and statesmen including Rudyard Kipling, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and William Wordsworth. That’s makes it a really large burial ground…
A few years later, while visiting the elaborately ornate Franciscan Cathedral at Porto, Portugal, I was reminded of Westminster Abbey…an oddly strange similarity, despite the modest Gothic exterior, a far cry from the grandeur of the London cathedral.
The inside, however, made me gasp…gold, gold and more gold carvings everywhere…an estimated 400kg of gilt-covered wood carvings and statues! They should probably check every visitors’ fingernails…in case people scrape off some. A natural pay-off from the discovery of gold in Brazil…but wait, didn’t the Franciscans monks take a vow of poverty?
In stark contrast to the ostentatious decor of the church, the underground catacombs were quite nondescript. We found ourselves walking over creaking floorboards, numbered serially. Oh no, not again! Beneath lay thousands of dead bodies…possibly whole families stretching back many generations laid to rest in the same family vault…rows and rows of eerie tombs! Patrons and families died buried in hallowed ground inside the church to be “closer to heaven”!
And in one corner of the crypt, through a glass, grated window in the floor, a piles of human bones was enough to freak me out completely! We learnt that these bones belonged to the common people. A Friar would had the task of collecting the bones and arranging them one upon the other.
That was it. We cut short the rest of the tour and returned for a fresh draft of air outside and I said to Vikas, “I would choose Westminster Abbey any day, thanks very much! Make no bones about it.”