Helen Stark 2015

Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, UK

Rethinking burial practice: William Godwin’s Essay on Sepulchres (1809)

In 1989 Alan Macfarlane posited that ‘In answer to the question, “What did people feel about death in this period and in what way did the feelings change?,” an obvious source of evidence is the poetry of the period.’ Taking as its starting point the assumption that literature can operate as a source of information about attitudes to death and burial practice, this paper will argue that William Godwin’s 1809 Essay on Sepulchres is positioned at the interstice of war, death, burial, politics and commemoration and in it, Godwin seeks to make a radical intervention in contemporary burial practice and concepts of commemoration. The publication of Godwin’s essay, which proposed a new method to mark the bodies of the dead, coincided with thoroughgoing reform of burial practice occurring in France and Italy and renewed interest in these issues in England. It also coincided with a new focus on commemoration in Britain: as Holger Hoock notes, ‘Over the course of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the British Parliament voted for 32 monuments to officer heroes to be erected in St Paul’s Cathedral.’ Godwin, however, suggested that regardless of social standing or reputation, the bodies of the dead should be marked with white wooden crosses which would naturally decay. Yet this meritocratic, egalitarian scheme, paid for and managed by the public (rather than the Church of England) has never been read in light of these vital political and cultural contexts which reveal the hitherto-unrealised radicalism of Godwin’s proposal.


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