Finding life over death

by
14 November 2014

Denise Inge, who died on Easter Day this year, discovered that her home was built over a charnel house. This prompted her to write a book exploring the challenge of living well in the face of mortality

BRENT CLARK

I LIVE in a large town house next to the cathedral and overlooking the River Severn in Worcester. The house has a curious history, including dereliction, crusty canons, ladies in crinolines, Sir Edward Elgar, Izaak Walton, medieval wayfarers, Benedictine monks, and several hundred sheltering skeletons.

When guests arrive, the wide front door swings open smoothly on its beautifully balanced hinges. They pass a velvet-trimmed curtain, and step into a stone-flagged hall with high ceilings - and, in winter, if we are lucky, a roaring fire. They are welcome. Crossing this threshold, they have also stepped over dead men's bones.

When I stop to think about this, which I have only recently begun to do, it seems strange to me that none of this - the door through which we have stepped, the floor on which we walk, the medieval stone foundations out of which the later brick elevations rise - would be here were it not for the bones below.

This town house was built exactly on the foundations of an earlier medieval dwelling that housed the charnel-house priest whose job it was to pray for the souls of the departed.

The term "charnel house" comes from the Latin carnalis, meaning flesh. "Ossuary" is another term from the Latin os for bone. The Germans call it Beinhaus, or bone house, which is the most straightforward term I have come across, since a charnel house is exactly that.

The imprint of that medieval priest's house became the blueprint for this one, its previous presence the justification for construction. The whole reason our house exists in this particular place, in this shape, is because there once lived a priest given the task of praying for the souls of those whose bones rested here beneath his own.

He and the bones were brothers: brothers in the monastic sense, because the charnel house and its priest were part of a Benedictine abbey that included the cathedral, next door; and the bones would have belonged to his fellow monks; but brothers, too, in a philosophical sense, because he lived with a constant sense of connection to those who had gone wherever souls go, and left their bones behind.

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HIS house and its small chapel were a kind of left-luggage room on a spiritual railway, bearing always an expectation of return or reunion. At the resurrection of the dead, these bones would live again with bodies more beautiful, and more whole, than any could imagine. And his would be among them.

Few of us live with such a perfect expectation. Many believe in an afterlife, and some believe in nothing at all, but few have a well-developed notion of what life after the resurrection might mean, whom we may find there, or what the terms of our relating to each other might be.

The footprint of his house and mine is the same, but I walk in it as in a pair of outsize shoes, aware always that our modern way of thinking has created slippage where medieval security might have been.Maybe I am wrong; maybe little about the unprovable afterlife has ever been secure, even in a medieval monastery, and that is precisely why he was given the job of praying.

Our cellar is all that remains of that medieval house. The least elegant part of the house, it is nevertheless the most intriguing for me, with its two staircases, its small steps up and down, and its odd turns into many mysterious storerooms.

At the front, stone-mullioned windows shed rectangles of light on limewashed walls and uneven floors; one step up leads you to the ping-pong playroom with overhead beams and a sloping floor. At the back, beyond a high threshold and a lockable door, lies the vaulted wine store with hooks for hanging hams, and shelves of higgledy-piggledy pots of mulberry jam, whisky marmalade, and plum chutney.

Along a corridor and up a short brick staircase, you reach the laundry, with its large stone sink so cold it turns your hands the chapped puce of a Victorian laundress's.


I LOVE our quirky cellar. There is something so brave and purposeful about it. It does not dissemble. There, where ancient stone gives way haphazardly to 17th-century brick, it tells its stories candidly: there, where the sawn-off pipe of a disused tap remains; where a dog before ours chewed a door edge; where a handle broke, and was replaced with a bit of old rope; where the key to a padlock was lost, and a new one fitted, and the brace and clasp of the old one left.

Gouges in the wall tell where the old range stood, replaced by the unsightly but necessary reinforced steel girder that supports the present cast-iron Aga overhead. Only in the last room you come to does our honest and hardworking cellar conceal. There, under a rug that our young daughters have never lifted, lies the trap door.

From this belly of our house, I began a kind of quest into fear, so that I might overcome it, and learn about living life unfrightened. I started the book scared of the skeletons in my cellar. Before I had finished it, I looked scarcely more than a skeleton myself, emaciated by cancer and chemotherapy. And I still do not know whether or not I am to be "a survivor".

There is a tumour wrapped around my portal vein, my hypatic artery, and my bile duct. It is inoperable; the surgery would kill me. It has been shrinking now for several months, and chemo has stopped. I can eat again, and carry things, and swim, and even laugh. I stand in the sunlight whenever the sun appears, and let it bless me.

Hundreds of people are praying for me. I pray, too, and I hope. But nothing is certain. I try complementary treatments and a strict diet that, I believe are helping my body to heal. I believe that I will see my children to adulthood and beyond. I believe that I will finish this book.

Shocking as it has been, and is, what I am dealing with is not so different from what every single one of us faces. I am simply facing it in Technicolor. With death, it is not a question of "if", only "when". And none of us knows the answer to that.


WE ARE all living with more unknowns than we like to admit. Independence, choice, autonomy, those qualities we value so highly that we pretend life is not worth living without, are largely illusory.

Oh, we have choices, certainly, but they are all made; and many of them can be unmade, according to, and surrounding, events over which we have no control. And what are we then, when we are no longer "in charge"?

We are free, I believe, if we can find it on the inside. Which is the only place from which freedom cannot be wrested, and the only kind of freedom that is abiding.

What seems so strange to me is that I wrote almost every word of the book before I was diagnosed with cancer. Did meditating on mortality somehow conjure the disease? I don't think so. But I do think that in some ways it prepared me for it.

Contemplating mortality is not about being prepared to die: it is about being prepared to live. And that is what I am doing now, more freely and more fully than I have since childhood. The cancer has not made life more precious - that would make it seem like some- thing fragile to lock away in the cupboard. No, it has made it more delicious.

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But my book is not primarily about cancer and recovery. It's too early for that. This is about facing the fear of death. Looking the greatest fears full in the face can open up the cupboards of your life, and throw the dust out.

I began to discover this even before the cancer came. I dis-covered it on a tour of bones that started in my very own home. It is a strange tour, I admit, and one I never would have taken if it hadn't been for the fact of my slightly freaky cellar.

This is an edited extract of A Tour of Bones: Facing fear and looking for life by Denise Inge, published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer £14.99).

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