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Lessons from history can teach us how to live

27 March 2015

The long shadow of the past can not only illuminate the present but also point to a more hopeful future, writes David Monteith

BONES have been a major focus of our work in recent years, and now King Richard III's remains are reinterred in Leicester Cathedral with dignity and honour. This has not been without controversy. It would appear that more than a skeleton has been exposed as we have brought up this particular body. Perhaps hardest to stomach were the comments which suggested that Leicester was not fit to receive the remains, as if history or community were dependent on cobbles and coffee shops. This was made even more unpalatable by an underlying racism which suggested that Leicester was not really British any more.

We have found, as we have prepared liturgy, reordered a cathedral, and excavated a theology fit for this unique series of events, that we have repeatedly been drawn back to these human bones. Richard's brutal experience of battle has been very present to us. His trauma-marked skeleton has not only revealed more of his experience, but has become symbolically powerful.

In "A Scattering"*, which won the Costa Poetry award in 2009, Christopher Reid charts his wife's final illness, her death, and the aftermath of grief. The poem that gives the volume its name takes the image of an elephant's graveyard to depict grief. The poet describes the animals hooking up and reconfiguring the old bones of their predecessors with the "air of deliberate ritual", a "puzzling out of their own ana-tomy". These are "abstracted lamentations" making "new, hopeful arrangements". Planning King Richard's reburial has not been about grief, but it has been about laying out these human remains in a way that facilitates a deeper understanding.

DR JO APPLEBY's work at the University of Leicester revealed that Richard's bones were subjected to brutality. While the wild hunchback portrayed by Olivier in the Shakespearean film is conjecture, nevertheless this King's bones were misshapen through scoliosis. Our clumsy fantasy of monarchy is re-framed by vulnerability. Accounts attest to the bravery of King Richard "in the thick of battle"; so he overcame physical challenges, and medieval taboos about disability. The Croyland Chronicle also suggests that his battle wounds were many, and his bone injuries are consistent with this description. Scientists have been able to identify 11 bone wounds which are likely to have been inflicted before death.

More disturbing was the discovery of post-mortem wounds, including one to the pelvis. Reconstruction showed that that was likely to have been made via the buttock. Polydor Vergil's contemporary account tells of Richard's body having been slung naked over the back of a horse, suffering insults as it was brought into Leicester for public display. The King was humiliated in a way we now more often associate with the reported acts of IS.

Human remains from the Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday 1461 (which that year, as this, fell on 29 March), point to similar brutality, and more post-death humiliation. While it is possible to accept this as unremarkable by the standards of the day, as a Christian cathedral serving a community that includes refugees and asylum-seekers who have escaped contemporary tyranny, we felt compelled to address this barbaric narrative.

We cannot undo history, but we can write new history. Richard's coffin was transported to the cathedral with dignity and honour, instead of naked on a horse. He was treated in a way that befits every human being, whatever their status. The too-frequent repatriations to Wootton Bassett, with which we have become familiar, have recaptured our instinctive sense of the need to provide such human dignity - first in life, but also in death.

Richard's story has resonated particularly in Leicester. Our Sikh neighbours have been making the links with their history of warrior leaders such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The ceremonial kirpan worn by baptised Sikhs points to the need for mercy, rather than weaponry. Interestingly, after the battle, Richard's face was left intact. One of my Muslim colleagues reminded me how Khalifah Abu Bakr came and kissed the face of the dead Prophet Mohammed. The face embodies the person, and Islam forbids the desecration of the face. The hadith says that, in a true jihad, post-mortem humiliation is forbidden.

FOLLOWING the burial of this "warrior king", we now enter Holy Week. Isaiah's suffering servant will be "crushed for our iniquities", as "through his bruises we are healed" (Isaiah 53.5). According to John's Gospel, the soldiers stabbed the dead body of Jesus (19.34), an uncomfortable thought for us Christians - a tradition of post-mortem humiliation with religious precedence. Equally, however, the Passover lamb was not to have bones broken; so it is worth highlighting that John tells of the soldiers' restraint (19.33).

We have brought Richard's brutalised bones into the heart of our cathedral, where the King's tomb is marked with a deeply incised cross. The design emerged from reflecting on Easter and the idea of a tombstone broken apart to reveal a new reality. Dame Carol Ann Duffy's poem, which we commissioned, and which was read at the service of reburial, begins with the words, "My bones, scripted in light, upon a human braille".

Easter faith scripts in light. Bones scarred by human brutality can speak about more than just our capacity to demean one another. The main biblical idea that underpinned the reburial service was the story of the moving of the bones of Joseph from the place of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. The book of Joshua records that this act becomes an inheritance of hope for generations to come.

We are learning from Richard III's brutal death, and we are seeing new, hopeful ways emerge of developing deeper respect for the living as well as the dead.

The Very Revd David Monteith is Dean of Leicester.

*A Scattering from A Scattering, Christopher Reid (Arete Books, 2009)

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