Weekly Photo Challenge: Wrong

Near the cathedral in Salisbury

After the tour bus dropped us off in Salisbury, we walked up a quiet lane that faced the cathedral green.  The guide pointed out that the green used to be a graveyard — as all medieval churchyards had been — but all the monuments had been removed, leaving behind a flat green lawn where a woman in a bikini read a book.

Our guide stopped at a simple iron fence and directed our attention to the back yard it enclosed.  The wildflower-spangled lawn inside folded over a huge heap of dirt.

“Why don’t they even that out?” one of the other American tourists asked.

“It covers a plague pit,” our guide answered.  “During the 1660s, the Black Plague ravaged England.  In every town, bodies were just thrown into mass graves.  Most were buried so hastily, they didn’t even have a shroud, to say nothing of a coffin.”  She waved at the mound, which rose four feet above ground level, even centuries after the grave was closed.  “You can see how many people must be buried here.”

I wondered if I could live in a house, knowing its yard was stuffed with victims of the Black Death.  Could I mow the grass over their grave?  Could I lie on the lawn and read a book?  If any place deserved to be haunted, I’m sure a plague pit does.

I was the only person who snapped a photo as the tour guide moved on.

Cemetery of the Week #71: Salisbury Cathedral

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the author of The Dangerous Type, Kill By Numbers, and No More Heroes. I am also the co-author (with Brian Thomas) of the novel Lost Angels and the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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17 Responses to Weekly Photo Challenge: Wrong

  1. coastalcrone says:

    I agree – it seems a bit wrong.

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  2. maybe they didn’t know

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  3. creative1975 says:

    I found your ‘wrong’ challenge interesting and quite sad too for all those poor people. I wonder if the people who live there knew before they bought it? and it they do now, does it bother them at all?

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    • Loren Rhoads says:

      If the realtor didn’t disclose it, the tenants must have at least wondered why the yard was so humped up. Does make you wonder about the people who could live there with the knowledge, though.

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  4. Eeeeewwww! Eeewww! Eeeewwww! Creepy! It sounds like a Stephen King book.

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  5. So much of history is ‘creepy’ – I think what would be wrong would be to eradicate all signs of something that marks a major historical tragedy. Thanks for posting this – I wasn’t aware that these pits existed on personal property.

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    • Loren Rhoads says:

      You’re right, of course! I wouldn’t want to see it eradicated because it’s creepy.

      My own reaction to the plague pit continues to surprise me. I wouldn’t mind a bit if I lived in a house that overlooked a cemetery or had some graves in a back corner of the property. There’s something about the way these people died — the plague — that puts me on edge.

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  6. Fascinating! I think what feels wrong about this (or any mass grave site) to me in the anonymity of the graves. In so much of the world there are elaborate, touching markers at gravesites. The panic surrounding these deaths robbed the dead of individual remembrance.

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    • Loren Rhoads says:

      What a lovely last sentence that is!

      Actually, mass graves were common in Christian Europe up until Pere Lachaise Cemetery opened in Paris in 1804. (Think of Mozart in his anonymous grave.) Only the very wealthy — or Jews — would have had a monument before that, which is why so few earlier monuments remain.

      For the most part, everyone else would have been wrapped in a shroud and laid side by side in a communal grave. They would have at least had a funeral and some prayers, been mourned. I wonder, in the time of plague, if any of those niceties were observed. I can scarcely imagine what it must have been like for them, survivors or victims.

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      • I’ve been told that before – that I would have trouble locating the graves of my German ancestors, even with records of where they were buried. Not so on the Scottish side. In Britain there are graves in many churchyards going back much further (16th & 17th centuries at least), although the remaining readable monuments are likely for the wealthier families. In Edinburgh both Greyfriars’ & St. Cuthbert’s have headstones in those time frames that we’ve visited. I suspect that even there, though, the plague prevented the niceties.

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  7. Inge says:

    Interesting to know the story. 🙂

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  8. Kay says:

    England is littered with burial mounds and sites dating back before histroy even properly recorded them. For such a small island, Great Britain has been very densely populated for thousands of years. If we avoided living near these sites or accepting them into our daily lives, nobody in England would have anywhere to live!

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    • Loren Rhoads says:

      That’s a great point. I live in a city that’s a little more than 2 centuries old, where graveyards all over town have been demolished and built over (without removing the bodies). It would be different to live somewhere that history stretches back millennia, where the past is respected and included in the present.

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