The delicately refined and the brutally honest

Sometimes a national event becomes a moment to note that nothing is fixed forever. The recent ten days of state mourning and a state funeral is one such example.

Visit any local parish church and you can see how the great and the good have been memorialised in stone or glass to be remembered to the end of time! Naturally, as with most aspects of human society the expression of commemoration is subject to the form of the times and the ability to pay for the memorial. The fine and elaborate tomb of Sir Robert Drury and his wife, Lady Anne, reflects the status they enjoyed whilst alive and the elite memorial fashion of the early sixteenth century.

The tomb of Sir Robert Drury (1456-1536) and his first wife, Lady Anne. Sir Robert was a Knight of the Body to Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

By the time of the eighteenth century more and more middle class professionals and their families were worthy enough and had means enough to be publicly remembered and were able to afford wall monuments.

18th century wall monuments for the great and the good of the locality. St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

But if we revisit the medieval period we find memorials which are less a decorous celebration of a life, but more a prompt to the onlooker to consider their own mortality. One expression of this sentiment is the Transi or Cadaver Tomb. There are over 40 medieval cadaver tombs extant in England and Wales and one of these is for John Baret (d.1467) and it can be found in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds. Baret was a wealthy cloth merchant and a gentleman of the household of the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds who had his memorial constructed in 1463, four years before his death.

The Cadaver Tomb of John Baret. Limestone. 1463

This particular cadaver tomb is unusual as traditionally the tomb had a clothed human effigy on the top of the tomb, and the naked emaciated corpse below. Baret reversed the convention and had his single-carved, three-quarter sized, naked corpse on the top with his miniature, clothed version below on one side of the tomb in bas-relief.

The miniature, clothed Baret in bas-relief.

Baret also had these words carved near his effigy’s head, “He that wil sadly beholde one with his ie, May se hys owyn merowr and lerne for to die“. (‘He that will sadly behold me with his eye, may see his own morrow and learn for to die’.)

These days it appears we have travelled a long way from the clear-eyed almost brutal memorials of the medieval dead to a time where youth is lauded to such an extent there is almost a denial that death exists at all. If there’s one positive to be taken from the ten days of national mourning, it is that it provided an opportunity for ordinary people to discuss their own experiences of loss and bereavement more openly.