Cenotaphs

September 19, 2009

Reading John Weever’s book on Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631) I was struck by the way he writes about the correlation between the location of the dead in the afterlife and the physical realisation of their memory in monument form in the world. Chapter 7 is about cenotaphs, and Weever reminds his readers that ‘a Cenotaph is an emptie Funerall Monument or Tombe, erected for the honour of the dead, wherein neither the corps, nor reliques of any defunct, are deposited’.

Weever defers to ancient examples to discuss cenotaphs of two sorts: ‘they were made either to the memory of such as were buried in some other remote funerall monument; or to such which had no buriall at all’. This first type was fairly simple to explain: they were monuments erected for the purpose of memorialising someone in a different location to where there remains were already interred.

The second, religious type of cenotaphs were made:

to the memory of such whose carcases, or dispersed reliques, were in no wise to bee found, for example, of such as perished by shipwracke, or such as were slaine, cut, mangled, and hew’d apeeces in battell, or of such that died in forraine nations; whose burials were unknowne. For in ancient times it was thought, that the Ghost of the defunct could not rest in any place quietly, before the body had decent buriall, or the performance thereof, in as ample manner as could possibly be imagined.

Weever then gives the example of how Aeneas and the Sibyl encountered Palinarus, the shipmaster, who had fallen off the ship and then been killed. Palinarus wanders the ‘limbo lake’ as he cannot get his final resting place until he is properly buried, a procedure the Sibyl promises to have undertaken in what is now Cape Palinuro. Though Weever goes on to furnish more, different examples, it is the example of Palinarus that seems most poetic as, on a mission as cartographic as that of Aeneas, the spectre of an permanently untethered helmsman is particularly haunting.

Before long Weever returns to examples of the shipwrecked, perhaps by far the most regular genre of unfortunates requiring cenotaphs. He quotes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.10:

Seas fright me with their tragicall aspect,
Of late I saw them on the shore eject
Their scattered wracks, and often I have read
Sad names on Sepulchres that want their dead.

The particularlity of the cenotaph is easier to see when you look at how Weever defines funeral monuments at the opening of the book. A funeral monument is characterised by its function of holding a body. It is ‘a receptacle or sepulchre, purposely made, erected, or built, to receive a dead corps, and to preserve the same from violation’.

One Response to “Cenotaphs”

  1. […] Cenotaphs Airs, Waters, Places comments on John Weever’s book on Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631) and “the way he writes about the correlation between the location of the dead in the afterlife and the physical realisation of their memory in monument form in the world”. […]

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