St. John’s Church
by Abi Hynes
Location: site of St. John’s Church, now St. John’s Gardens, Byrom Street
What are they going to do with the bodies?
It’s the question that remains tactfully unanswered, and I think of the sermon I would have given a year ago: Christ driving the traders from the temple. They say they’ll put up a stone; one stone, presumably, in a ‘catch all’ gesture, something with steps for visitors to eat their sandwiches on. But I’m preoccupied with the physical practicalities of the thing. Will they dig them up and move them? I imagine it – this gruesome exodus of dead flesh – and it seems unlikely. What of the smell?
We’re allowed to come here, those of us who still recognise the names on these dismal flat tombstones. They lie side by side, a pavement of swelling stone and marble, flat and low, like the people under them, I supose. I haven’t been here since I was a boy. Seeing them, I understand why other churches build those towering cherubs; fat stone fingers stretching heavenward, plump faces and rounded buttocks belying the wasting beneath. We build them like we build all our monuments; so that something may stand tall for us when we must lie down and sleep.
These un-lofty memorials are laid so tightly together that there’s nowhere to walk but over them. I imagine the dead knocking, their knuckles turning to dust as they rap up in reply to our trespassing footsteps. Some of the slabs are slightly loose, and I place my feet carefully in the centre of each one as I pick my way across this bizarre evening playground, avoiding the cracks.
We’re quickly losing the light; some people have brought torches to help them pick out the names of brothers and husbands and great-great-aunts. The beams of the torches swing eerily about. It’s making me feel dizzy, like watching other people on a fairground ride. I want to find him – it – quickly, and go home.
A younger man approaches me and shakes my hand without an introduction. His face is familiar, or perhaps it only ought to be. I’m pleased with his unidentified company; it offers me the opportunity to make my quip about being on the graveyard shift. A little awkward, when I realise we don’t know each other. I was just standing on his grandmother.
Twenty-two thousand, they say are buried here. That number seems impossible in this little plot of earth – hell, half that number seems impossible. They must have stacked them like bunk beds. I’d always thought of him alone down there, not packed in like prisoners, three or four deep. It’s true; I feel him strongly here. I feel as if I’m nine years old and he’s about to tap me on the shoulder. We shouldn’t scoff at people’s superstitions. I swear, beneath my feet, I can hear a child laughing. Ridiculous.
It’s true what they say, you see, about churches gradually sinking into the ground. But it isn’t really that the ground is swallowing them; it’s the consecrated earth around them rising up, with the sheer physical mass of human remains that we shovel into it.
I find him – flat, unimpressive thing – and yet the solidity of him lying there startles me. He reaches out of the earth, and he’s the child, not me, and when he takes my hand it’s small and soft in mine. I ought to be surprised, perhaps. But we are all little when we die. I’ve held the hands at that moment, and felt the bones shrink. ‘Getting ready for my coffin, Vicar,’ they say, stooping.
It’s difficult to be spiritual, surrounded by such obvious physical evidence of our mortality. Thy kingdom come, we say. We all rot. All of us; our thoughts and our promises and, yes, our passions too – everything we might call the soul – it all rots. Don’t shake your head; look down, look underneath your feet. You are standing over centuries of prayer.
The dead keep knocking. Selfish, clamouring voices, the old ones jealous of the freshly dug graves, the ones with still-damp rot, the ones with flowers bought on Sundays.
The dead keep knocking. Even the ones four layers down, the ones that have been dust for centuries, the ones with no living relatives to send their messages to. Psst – pass it on – like a great vertical game of Chinese Whispers – Pass it on – tell them – don’t forget me.