On Grave Matters
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
I recall once seeing a display in a travel agency shop window. It consisted of colourful paper cups filled with sand that had been taken from beaches around the globe, each with a little paper umbrella stuck into the surface as if it was a miniature beach in itself, and each labelled to indicate the source of the sand and thus the nature of the particular beach that it represented. It was a very effective display in that it indicated the variety of the sands and thereby, the unique nature of the different travel locations, and managed through this minute gesture to convey sense of holiday.
Like sand, soil varies greatly from place to place and even within a single location. Agriculturalists know this. So too do undertakers and archaeologists. Each of these vocations shares with the others an intimacy with the soil. For all three it is the medium in which they work, though perhaps for the undertaker the soil itself is of less interest than for the others. It is simply something to be shovelled aside, something that has to be first removed, and then, once they have carried out their mission replaced, whereas, for the farmer soil produces his crops and its quality is vital for that produce, and for the archaeologist it covers or contains his finds and its qualities hint at events of the past. Soil for them is something that has to be examined with great care, picked up, felt, its colour considered, its texture regarded.
I am pleased to find this affinity between archaeologist and farmer rather than with the undertaker, though by no means do I belittle that profession which provides, after all, a much more fundamental human need than does even the study of the human past (and in that the undertaker is closer to the farmer). But death and burial are, after all, unpleasant realities.
How were the dead disposed of in the past? When there were mass deaths such as in times of plague the disposal of the dead was no easy task, sometimes, such as during the Black Death of the fourteenth century, an insurmountable one (an estimated total of between 75 to 200 million people died in the medieval outbreak of plague throughout Eurasia). Sometimes only a highly organised society could attempt to deal with mass deaths. The British Imperial War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917 with the aim of undertaking the enormous task of burying the more than 700,000 British dead of the First World War. This was a monumental task, but by 1927 over 500 cemeteries had been established with 400,000 headstones, in addition to monuments built to commemorate the hundreds of thousands soldiers missing in action. We can only wonder about how great losses of life were dealt with in the past, but we are often in the dark with regard to how death, even on a normal scale, was dealt with.
When William Calver came to Montfort in 1926 one of the questions he sought to answer was where the crusader dead were buried. He came up with no answer, and since then no evidence for burial has been found in the vicinity. Probably the dead were taken back to Acre to be interred in the order's cemetery. Many aspects of burial in Frankish towns, castles and villages remain enigmatic. What happened to those killed in major battles - Hattin for example? Where are the thousands of tombs of the Frankish dead in cities like Jerusalem? The only substantial cemetery known today is that of the castle and small township of 'Atlit (Château Pèlerin) which now being studied and the team from the University of Bordeaux led by Yves Gleize. Some of these questions will hopefully be resolved by a study now underway by an Israeli scholar, Amit Reem from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.