Maggie Butcher talks about her experience with our recent HS2 exhibition ‘St James’s Burial Ground’.
Arriving in church with minutes to spare for a memorial service recently, I was taken by surprise to see a curiously bonneted person in the pew where I’d intended to sit. It took me a moment to realise she was a cardboard 3D representation of Catherine Mahala Williams who, I later learned, was a former parishioner who had died in 1845 and was buried in St James’s Burial Ground in Euston. Her body, along with her pet parrot with which she’d been interred, was one of the 40,000 exhumed to make way for the HS2 project. Five other nineteenth-century parishioners were similarly represented including Charles Fortnum, co- founder of our neighbouring emporium, luthier Thomas Blomer Phipps, the pipe-smoking disabled dressmaker Elizabeth Mercer with her crutch, and Hannah Turner, who lived to the then ripe old age of 76 (the same age as me), who wore corsets so tight her rib cage had become deformed. Archaeology has in such instances given us a tantalising glimpse of their lives; databases, archives and imagination serve to fill in the gaps.
Perhaps it’s because I’m as old as I am that attending funerals has now become a pretty regular occurrence. On almost every occasion I learn so much, so late, of that person’s history and am struck by how little I knew about them when they were alive, even though in several instances we’d been attending St James’s for years. What conversations we could have had! What common threads there were, if only I had known. I ponder and resolve to do better.
But, having said that, the pews at St James’s are, for me, still filled by those who have gone before me; not cardboard cutouts or printed replicas. I still expect to be greeted at the door by old friends, to see Tom in the back row, Peggy in front of me, Ann and George at the front, and Mora, and Ilse and Phyllis and Margaret and Robin, and many others besides. And truly, I believe, they are still there, part now of the prayerful fabric of the place they loved and worshipped in, along with those whose names we might have forgotten, as we in turn will be. So when, during Eastertide, we say The Apostles’ Creed, that ancient formulary speaks to me of present, past and future: “I believe in the communion of saints”. That for me is no abstraction or pious thinking but something real and tangible; in TS Eliot’s words:
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”