Mortal stone

It was irresistible. The whiteness of the stone glowed softly in the filtered light of the church, projecting the image of a man who had recently broken the bonds of youth. His face conveyed the attraction of a strength that comes from trustworthy kindness, while his capable body was clothed with the authority of untorn but well-worn military garb that claimed him as a leader of men. Like a king, his hands were not clasped in prayer, but rested alongside his body, for prayer could not aid him.

I had to hold his hand.

Although I was alone with him, I hesitated: stone monuments are not made to be caressed. This twentieth-century monument was not the reason I had come here yet its otherworldly qualities had called my attention far more effectively than any siste, viator! ever could. The tombs I normally study hedge themselves with iron grills, or are engraven with inscriptions declaring themselves off limits to the damaging human touch.

The power of this memorial was shocking. The sculptor had taken the medieval archetype of a life-size effigy recumbent on a tomb chest then gently tilted its elements towards modernity. In particular, the effigy was carved in white stone, thrown into relief by the darkness of the ledge on which it lay, and unadorned by the whirls of paint or gold that obscured the base material in the aesthetic world of earlier generations.

Tentatively, I placed my hand in his.

Did I seek to offer comfort to this lost generation? Or did I seek reassurance that our dreams should not be abandoned?

The stone was colder than death. This tomb did not memorialise a now forgotten son, brother and uncle; instead, using the very tropes of memory whose deaths it signified, it stood for the English tradition that had perished in the battlefields of the Great War.

The realist fiction was broken.

The rural parish church ceased to be a verdant window into a thousand years of history and resumed its place as a silent sepulchre in the midst of frozen fields.

Extract from a paper presented at the ‘Hearts and Stones’ collaboratory of the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions 1100-1800, Saturday 30 July 2011

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