Sunday, May 22, 2016

Voices of the Dead




It's May, and in May, Southerners go eat among the dead. If you are not from the South, you may not understand the need to pack up enough food to feed twenty men, lay it all out on a table under a shade tree by the cemetery, and visit with your near, distant, and dead kin; but Southerners do it at least once a year. It's called decoration day, and it feeds our soul like fried chicken fills our tummies. We walk around the tombstones and tell stories, allowing our oral traditions to tie us to the past. The stories of those people buried in the graves mark time and shape who we are. The dead people, even the ones from the 1800s, give value to our history and to our lives.

With this background, you can imagine my horror at the idea of plague pits. The thought of someone coming along and collecting my father, husband, or son in a cart to bury him in a common grave is foreign and painful. Yet, that was the life (and death rites) during the plague outbreaks. People did not have the resources to provide a cemetery plot, much less a funeral. The common folk had no tombstones to denote their birth, their death, or their accomplishments in between. These plague pits are scattered all over Europe, with around 30 or so in and around London (check out this interactive map of pit locations). The survivors were robbed of time to grieve; they had focus, instead,  on survival, wondering from day to day if their bodies would be the next ones piled in a cart and thrown in hole.

Why do students need to learn about this? Because humanity lived it. They wrote about it, sang about it, and painted it. The Museum of London has two galleries that our team can't wait to explore. We are going to check out the War, Plague, and Fire section and Medieval London. Both of these should provide us with the information we need to show our students how society copes with death.

The existence of the plague pits also shows how diseases can steal our compassion. While the sick perished during the plague, many doctors abandoned them. However, a few dedicated people stayed to nurse the suffering. St. Bartholomew's Hospital was founded in 1123. During the plague outbreak of the 1600s, several physicians fled; however, the Matron at Barts and her staff stayed behind to tend the sick. The hospital maintains a museum and archives. Our team will go there to see courage in the face of death.

In just two weeks, our team will visit what remains of the plague's dead. We will learn their stories and take those stories back to our students. Our souls will be touched by people who didn't even have the dignity of a burial plot. Yet, hundreds of years later, we will still be listening to their story.