The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains

BowlerdrybonesThomas W. Laqueur at The Paris Review:

When an important nineteenth-century painter takes on the subject of mortality and immortality, the scene is set in a churchyard, not a cemetery. There were no bodies evident in the latter. Henry Alexander Bowler’s The Doubt: ‘Can These Dry Bones Live?’ was painted in 1855 as a meditation on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. A young woman is standing amidst the genteel disrepair of what appears to be a substantial country churchyard (but actually is the churchyard of the London suburb of Stoke Newington). The box tomb on her right has lost its siding, exposing the brick vault beneath; this is the sort of shelter that sparked late eighteenth-century litigation, an effort that went against the nature of the place, that somehow tried to bring order to an individual grave by claiming for it a permanence that some opposed. The stone behind her has sunk almost out of sight; further back, an old-fashioned and short-lived grave board with elaborately carved posts running laterally along the body beneath is visible among a picturesque array of variously angled slabs. She rests her arms on the gravestone of John Faithful and looks onto the disturbed earth of the grave—there is no hint why it is in this condition, but it is almost a trope of churchyard representation. More specifically, she contemplates the skull that is lying there and the femur and bits of ribs that are poking out of the ground. This would have been unthinkable in the new regime of the cemetery. The red brick buttresses and a few windows of the church building itself stand out as if to make the point of a historical continuity of the Christian community of the living and the dead, represented by the field of markers in various stages of decay—its past, by the church that serves the living, and by the visit itself. John Faithful died in 1791, and the woman’s costume makes clear that the scene we are witnessing occurred sixty years later, in the 1850s.

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