Monday, March 9, 2009

Cross Bones Graveyard

The goal of Radical Joy for Hard Times is to bring beauty to orphaned places, that they may once again become part of the cycle of life. The story of Cross Bones Graveyard in southeast London is a remarkable example of how giving that kind of attention to a place and its people satisfies a deep human need to sooth old injuries.

Near a London Underground station a metal gate in the midst of a brick wall is adorned with ivy, colorful ribbons, some with prayers written on them, flowers, feathers, bundles of dried grass, and other gifts. Inside the enclosure a small garden features a heart-shaped topiary and carefully tended flower beds.

This is Cross Bones, a graveyard where prostitutes were buried for hundreds of years beginning in medieval times. The women, known as “Winchester Geese” because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in legalized brothels, could not be buried in hallowed ground.

The land was sold as a building site in the 1880s, but nothing was erected there until more than a hundred years later when the London Underground built a power sub-station on the land in 1990. It was when they began excavating that they unearthed a few of the old skeletons, which they estimated to total approximately 15,000.

Since then this place of anonymity and ignominy has been beautified and commemorated inside and out, informally and formally, through gardening and ceremony and simply through respectful attention.

John Constable, author of a series of poems and plays, The Southwark Mysteries, based on the imagined life of one of the women, writes:

“We've conducted many rituals and community events at the graveyard. The rituals are simple, inclusive and non-dogmatic, emphasising respect for ‘the Ancestors’, and honouring the spirit of this particular place. The Halloween of Cross Bones has been observed every Halloween night since 1998, with hundreds of people making the candlelit procession to the site, to honour 'the outcast dead' with candles, incense, songs and offerings.”

Members of the community pick up trash and replenish the impromptu shrine on the gate with fresh flowers. They are currently working to get permission to dedicate at least part of the burial ground as a memorial garden.

What is most remarkable about the attention and care given to Cross Bones is that it is ongoing. Because people in the community have cared for a wasteland and for forgotten women in simple, beautiful ways, the place has become what it never was in the past: hallowed ground.