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A Dead Man In Clerkenwell

October 29, 2020
by the gentle author

Aa Halloween approaches, it suits my mood to contemplate the dead man in the crypt in Clerkenwell

This is the face of the dead man in Clerkenwell. He does not look perturbed by the change in the weather. Once winters wore him out, but now he rests beneath the streets of the modern city he will never see, oblivious both to the weather and the wonders of our age, entirely oblivious to everything in fact.

Let me admit, although some might consider it poor company, I consider death to be my friend – because without mortality our time upon this earth would be worthless. So I do not fear death, but rather I hope I shall have enough life first. My fear is that death might come too soon or unexpectedly in some pernicious form. In this respect, I envy my father who always took a nap on the sofa each Sunday after gardening and one day at the age of seventy nine – when he had completed trimming the privet hedge – he never woke up again.

It was many years ago that I first made the acquaintance of the dead man in Clerkenwell, when I had an office in the Close where I used to go each day and write. I was fascinated to discover a twelfth century crypt in the heart of London, the oldest remnant of the medieval priory of the Knights of St John that once stood in Clerkenwell until it was destroyed by Henry VIII, and it was this memento mori, a sixteenth century stone figure of an emaciated corpse, which embodied the spirit of the place for me.

Thanks to Pamela Willis,  curator at the Museum of the Order of St John, I went back to look up my old friend after all these years. She lent me her key and, leaving the bright October sunshine behind me, I let myself into the crypt, switching on the lights and walking to the furthest underground recess of the building where the dead man was waiting. I walked up to the tomb where he lay and cast my eyes upon him, recumbent with his shroud gathered across his groin to protect a modesty that was no longer required. He did not remonstrate with me for letting twenty years go by. He did not even look surprised. He did not appear to recognise me at all. Yet he looked different than before, because I had changed, and it was the transformative events of the intervening years that had awakened my curiosity to return.

There is a veracity in this sculpture which I could not recognise upon my previous visit, when – in my innocence – I had never seen a dead person. Standing over the figure this time, as if at a bedside, I observed the distended limbs, the sunken eyes and the tilt of the head that are distinctive to the dead. When my mother lost her mental and then her physical faculties too, I continued to feed her until she could no longer even swallow liquid, becoming as emaciated as the stone figure before me. It was at dusk on the 31st December that I came into her room and discovered her inanimate, recognising that through some inexplicable prescience the life had gone from her at the ending of the year. I understood the literal meaning of “remains,” because everything distinctive of the living person had departed to leave mere skin and bone. And I know now that the sculptor who made this effigy had seen that too, because his observation of the dead is apparent in his work, even if the bizarre number of ribs in his figure bears no relation to human anatomy.

There is a polished area on the brow, upon which I instinctively placed my hand, where my predecessors over the past five centuries had worn it smooth. This gesture, which you make as if to check his temperature, is an unconscious blessing in recognition of the commonality we share with the dead who have gone before us and whose ranks we shall all join eventually. The paradox of this sculpture is that because it is a man-made artifact it has emotional presence, whereas the actual dead have only absence. It is the tender details – the hair carefully pulled back behind the ears, and the protective arms with their workmanlike repairs – that endear me to this soulful relic.

Time has not been kind to this figure, which originally lay upon the elaborate tomb of Sir William Weston inside the old church of St James Clerkenwell, until the edifice was demolished and the current church was built in the eighteenth century, when the effigy was resigned to this crypt like an old pram slung in the cellar. Today a modern facade reveals no hint of what lies below ground. Sir William Weston, the last Prior, died in April 1540 on the day that Henry VIII issued the instruction to dissolve the Order, and the nature of his death was unrecorded. Thus, my friend the dead man is loss incarnate – the damaged relic of the tomb of the last Prior of the monastery destroyed five hundred years ago – yet he still has his human dignity and he speaks to me.

Walking back from Clerkenwell, through the City to Spitalfields on this bright afternoon in late October, I recognised a similar instinct as I did after my mother’s death. I cooked myself a meal because I craved the familiar task and the event of the day renewed my desire to live more life.

The Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, EC1M 4DA

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Luke Clennell’s Dance of Death

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Charlotte Halley permalink
    October 29, 2020

    Thank you for this day’s thoughts. May we both live our lives to their proper end.

  2. October 29, 2020

    I felt I understood the concept of the soul for the first time having watched my father take his last breath. Thank you, as ever, Gentle Author for putting your thoughts and feelings into words and sharing this eerie visit with us.

  3. Joan Isaac permalink
    October 29, 2020

    A stunning piece of writing – thank you so much for sharing

  4. October 29, 2020

    What a beautiful piece, Ian. Thank you.

  5. Linda Granfield permalink
    October 29, 2020

    One can feel the chill in that crypt conveyed by your photographs.
    The warm moments of your recollections of your parents nicely balance that cold.

    Such dignity in that dead man’s face.
    And love in your piece today.
    Thank you.

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 29, 2020

    I am amazed GA at how often your pieces strike a chord with me and today is no exception as I have made up my mind that I must finally go through all the ephemera that was left to me by our friend who took his own life. They are all that remains of him and I have put off what must be done for far too many years. I not only have his very long suicide note to me but a big box full of poetry and other things that he wrote such as his personal views of people he worked with in a charity shop and others including me. He wrote also a list of the people who had helped him to cope after his mother died and, I have no idea why, but I am mentioned first. I was finding the thought of searching through all these ‘remains’ of him very daunting but reading this piece has helped and I shall be brave !! Thank you as always GA.

  7. Frances Bevan permalink
    October 29, 2020

    An evocative and poignant article. Thought provoking. Thank you.

  8. October 29, 2020

    So tenderly written it moved me to tears

  9. Russell Metz permalink
    October 29, 2020

    Wonderful little essay. Thank you and stay safe.

  10. Ann Vosper permalink
    October 29, 2020

    Simply beautiful – thank you.

  11. Leana Pooley permalink
    October 29, 2020

    As Alan Bennett put it: keep on keeping on……

  12. Pamela Traves permalink
    October 29, 2020

    Amazing Sad, Very Old Death of a British man. Thank You.???????

  13. Stella permalink
    October 30, 2020

    Oh Gentle Author, my mother has just passed away, much in the same way as your own. She refused to eat or drink, as swallowing became impossible. I felt so helpless, watching her waste away. Somehow, reading your reflections on death is oddly comforting. Thank you for a much needed assurance that others have walked this path before.

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