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God's Disputed Acre

  • DAVID DYMOND

Abstract

‘places consecrated to God [should] be venerated by all, and by no means profaned or in any way violated by a jarring or unsuitable activity, whether in working, jesting or playing …; [there should be] no laughter, shouting, immoderate mirth, indecent and indiscreet dances, indecent mockeries and harmful plays proper to the market-place or the stage’: letter of Bishop Edmund Lacy of Exeter, 1451

Old churchyards enshrine vast amounts of personal and social history, although most of it, sadly, is not recoverable. Furthermore, they often display a romantic and touching beauty. When exploring villages and towns in all parts of Britain, many of us have been moved by the sight of a raised platform of hummocky turf surrounding an ancient Christian church, walled and gated, crossed by narrow paths, shaded by mature trees, dotted with leaning headstones and lichened table-tombs, perhaps with the weathered stump of a medieval preaching cross. Above all we are impressed by the thought that most of the local population, over many centuries, lies here, ‘each in his narrow cell for ever laid’. For example, a rural churchyard of half an acre at Widford in Hertfordshire is estimated to hold more than 5,000 burials, laid to rest over a period of at least 900 years. Such places have witnessed many solemn rituals: consecration by a bishop, occasional claims of sanctuary, sad clusters of mourners around open graves, the commemorative prayers and bell-ringing of All Saints' and All Souls' days, parochial processions on Palm Sunday or Corpus Christi, and at all periods the lonely vigils of the bereaved. Repeatedly opened and re-filled by generations of gravediggers, churchyards are potent reminders of human mortality which the living have mostly treated with respect, deep reflection and some superstition.

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God's Disputed Acre

  • DAVID DYMOND

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