As Research Impact and Public Engagement Manager for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Manchester Met, I have been working on Encountering Corpses with Craig Young for the last four years. It has been my privilege each time to curate amazing art, and to bring to each event a real ‘encounter’ with human remains. To make the symposia not just theoretical, but to practice what we preach, as we preach it.
At the previous Encountering Corpses events in Manchester we have engaged with real dead bodies in a number of ways. In 2014 we joined Egyptologist Campbell Price at Manchester Museum to look at the Egyptian remains in their collection. In 2016 we held our symposium at Southern Cemetery crematorium. When it came to organising our third event in 2017, we needed to hold the now two day event within the University and so we wondered: where will we encounter the dead this time?
I had a good idea we could do this on the doorstep…
Grosvenor Square – more commonly known as All Saints Park – sits right at the heart of the main Manchester Met campus. It is tiny and seemingly quite innocuous.
For leading Manchester tourist info site Visit Manchester it is somewhere to eat lunch.
Manchester Met is currently in the process of reimagining the site as ‘All Saints Art Park’. Just outside the library you can already view an augmented reality plinth which links you to artefacts from the University’s amazing ‘Special Collections’ holdings of books and art.
It is a space where arguably rather profane spectacles take place too: from outdoor drinking, to guerrilla marketing and even a naked bike ride every summer. Yet we know from four notices, one at each entrance to the park, that this was once the burial ground of All Saints Church. Moreover, that really was all I knew, before undertaking this work.
Michala Hulme of the Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage at Manchester Met has prepared a short history of the church for this blog. Suffice to say, there was a church on the site and we knew with some certainty there would be some human remains still located here.
The burial ground had been a park for a number of decades before Manchester Met took the lease from Manchester City Council in 1995. At that time, the University undertook the current landscaping, following designs created by Ed Bennis and Barry Wonnacott of the Centre for Landscape Research at Manchester Met, reinstating some old features and installing new ones. It is in this instantiation of the park that I now wanted us to collectively encounter the dead for the third Encountering Corpses symposium. Starting to look around the site with this in mind, it became very apparent that this was a place where the sacred was continually re-emerging.
Within the park, we have a garden design which calls to mind the most ancient monuments we know, standing stones and circles. Contemporary memorials remember dear relatives, students and staff killed in dreadful accidents and horrific circumstances, and Africans abused and murdered by slavery: particularly relevant here in Manchester, where the wealth that paid for the city came in large part from colonial enterprises. This, then, is a space that is prosaic and profane, sacred and mystical, all at once.
For every instance of Encountering Corpses it has been my intention that participants are brought as close as possible to the real dead, to their materiality. This desire came about for me back in 2014, and inspired our encounter with the Egyptian remains at Manchester Museum. I have lived in Manchester my whole life and like anyone brought up here had been taken to see the ‘Manchester Mummies’ multiple times as a child. But I had never really thought of them as dead bodies, as bones that once had flesh around them, that had walked and breathed. As I read Craig’s research and the work of other death studies academics and specialists, I became intrigued by that disconnect – between the real dead around us and how we are conditioned to think about them – and found myself motivated to challenge it, in myself and others.
For the encounters in this series I have wanted the participants, to feel, viscerally, that the human remains are present, and what this means.
I want you to feel their bones, in your bones.
For the encounter in All Saints Park we are asking you to consider the dead below the ground, to send your consciousness under the earth to meet them. Artist Debbie Sharp, who has worked extensively on death and memory, has been commissioned to help with this by creating a sound piece that you can listen to while in the park. It is available on Soundcloud.
I have myself made a piece of work that addresses a tiny part of the biography of the people in All Saints – the only thing we know in most cases so far – their names.
And what of the dead of All Saints Church?
Despite popular rumours that abound that this site was a mass grave or a plague pit, Michala’s research finds these dead to be the well-heeled middle classes of burgeoning Victorian Manchester. They are our unremarkable dead – dead from disease or old age in the most part.
We found burial records for over 16,000 of these ordinary people. Not wiped out by plague or disaster, but by time.
As unremarkable, then, as you or I.
This is the equality of death, and the covering over of the space and its reimagining demonstrates also the impossibility of permanent or perfect remembrance.
So why even remember these unremarkable dead? Dead who are not marked by fame, or high circumstances, or even the negative celebrity of extreme calamity?
I believe that remembering everyone, including the unremarkable, connects us back to the ubiquity of death, the vagaries of fortune, and the shared fellowship of all human beings. In attempting to remember everyone we accept the intrinsic value of all people, without agenda or placing of value.
So I am asking you to encounter these corpses exactly because they were not special, are not especially interesting, were just a fragment of history that we have laid a new world over and begun again – and remember all the multitudes of dead as a way, too, of loving everyone alive, without judgement of their worth or otherwise.
I am also concerned here with the disappearance of reverance from contemporary, Western, neo-liberal, late capitalist society. (And I say this as both an atheist and a materialist). It comes back to the disconnect I spoke of around the ‘Manchester Mummies’. My suspicion is that the capacity that allows us to turn a grave site into a picnic spot might be the same capacity that allows us to close the door of the abattoir and deny the grim realities of industrial meat and dairy production, or observe a dinghy bobbing in the Mediterranean sea but not feel the families inside.
I believe death studies and encountering the dead is uniquely placed to turn from this sense of disconnection towards an ethics of care, because of the universal equity of the fact of death. Engaging with memory and history entail nuance, layering and complexity, helping us to avoid a banal enthrallment to what is new or, more often, expedient. Remembrance of the dead in particular evinces care towards others because death connects, in its ubiquity, all living things.
The physical installation will hopefully resonate with you if you get the chance to see it, and speak for itself as art should. But to give a few notes of reference:
The installation has been inspired by acts of informal, collective commemoration and ceremony – the locks at Liverpool docks, pagan Clootie trees and the ribbon memorials at Crossbones graveyard in London.
The shapes were inspired by the falling leaves of the park, which filled the place when we were exploring and researching, and of course speak to death, decay and temporality. The white colour of the leaves is both reverent and ghostly – and the names are deliberately faint and obscure, in acknowledgement that attempts to remember individuals are ephemeral and doomed to failure.
There is no stone carved for eternity, for any of us – only hauntings that can be brought to mind as shadows of our own passing.
It is in these shadows, rather than in marble and granite, that we can find an inscription that remembers everyone.
I would like to thank Eleanor Donaldson from Estates Projects at Manchester Met for her invaluable assistance in researching the history of the park since the University took up the lease.
I highly recommend Derek Brumhead and Terry Wyke’s book ‘A Walk Around All Saints’ (Manchester Polytechnic, 1987 ISBN 10: 1870355008 / ISBN 13: 9781870355001) for more fascinating insights into this pocket-handkerchief sized space that’s packed with multitudinous histories.
A few public historians / psychogeographers have fruitfully engaged with the park previously, and I am indebted to their inspirational writing: