Duke Humphrey's coffin 'pickle' at St Albans Abbey represents one of many 'ancient' tombs opened and collections of human bones displayed in churches in the 18th and 19th century for an early type of ‘scientific’ investigation and 'dark tourism'. Some decried it as disrespectful; others saw a new (Protestant) method of 'archaeology' emerging.
However, this phenomenon was not new. Remains of saints, clergy, royalty, and cultural icons have been examined to both verify and venerate them since at least the 7th century in Britain’s churches, and this continued on a regular basis until the late 19th/early 20th century. Throughout this period, charnel collections of human bones created from pragmatic exhumations had cycles of being presented in churches, and tomb ‘treasures’ and historic human remains continued to be displayed in churches centuries even after the end of saints’ cults in the 1530s-40s. Today, there is extensive public and media interest in Britain’s church charnel displays as well as saints’ bones in cathedrals; royal exhumations; and demands to exhume or investigate the graves of iconic individuals from history, such as the Princes in the Tower, King Harold, and William Shakespeare. Forthcoming HS2 construction will also involve unprecedented exhumation of thousands of skeletons from church contexts.
Yet centuries-long public and academic interest in the church dead (those buried inside church buildings and precincts), whether discovered by accident or design, has had no dedicated study.The thoughts, feelings, beliefs, laws, and methods surrounding these exhumations and examinations of the long-dead were reported and discussed in many different types of records and documents from the seventh to nineteenth centuries (and beyond), but had not yet been researched.
Tomb opening today is very rare and 'respectful', and burial inside churches largely ended in the 1850s. Yet the reburial of Richard III in 2013, the potential excavation of an unprecedented number of Christian-era burials by HS2, and the ongoing pressure on many churches, cathedrals, and Christian-era burial grounds in Britain to re-use or relocate graves and tombs due to space and conservation, continues to raise some unresolved questions and issues:
- How did people in the past feel about opening tombs and graves; how did they practice exhumation, and what debates surrounded this practice?
- What constitutes 'respectful treatment' of the dead, if ‘respect’ has been defined in different ways at different times in the past?
- How can we link the history of Christian belief in Britain with reburying ancient human remains in or from churches?
- How can we ensure that handling, storing, and reburying those buried in Christian contexts aligns with past beliefs and understandings of ‘respect’?