Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast

Cross Bones – an unconsecrated graveyard in south London – is the final resting place of around 15,000 bodies, mostly paupers and prostitutes. These are the outcast dead, unnamed and largely forgotten until construction workers began to unearth their bones in the early 1990’s.

It’s a remarkable site that in many ways embodies the power of the relationship between bodymind and place. The graveyard is now owned by London Transport and fenced off from the general public by high metal gates. The gates are covered with offerings: ribbons, flowers, dolls, candles in jars, small toys, pieces of wood, beads – myriad objects made sacred by intent.

A wooden wreath with ribbons and a cross attached

A wreath hung on the gates

The area used to be poor and largely undeveloped and no-one was very interested in a pauper’s graveyard. It was just another piece of derelict land – fenced off and almost forgotten. But that all changed when construction began. Workers quickly began to discover bones – lots of bones. Once they realised these weren’t the remains of some gangland killing, the Museum of London was called in.

At around the time that the first bones were unearthed, a local urban Shaman began to hear the voice of one of the spirits of the place. Soon after people began to honour the outcast dead with simple ceremony and offerings. Since then Cross Bones has inspired a collection of poems and plays (Constable, 1999), many Halloween ceremonies and a monthly vigil to honour the Outcast Dead.

I’ve recently published an academic journal article about the site (Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast). My article explores the power of Cross Bones as a physical expression of the spirit of radical acceptance. Cross Bones subverts familiar divisions between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’. As a result, this special place is profoundly healing.

“That’s the healing, for me, what we’re doing … the break between the physical and the spiritual. ‘This is good, this is not good’. That duality.” … “… bringing those things together, making the pathway open. Yeah. That’s why it’s a healing place for me, because it does that” (Jen, in interview).

I hadn’t intended to write a Christmas blog post, but now realise how appropriate this is. I hope those celebrating the birth of Christ – a physical incarnation of the sacred who frequently honoured the outcast and sought to bring healing to the world – will agree.

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2 Responses to Cross Bones Graveyard: Honouring the Outcast

  1. Brian Taylor says:

    I found this very moving. I’ve lived in Yorkshire for most of my adult life, but went to school near Tower Bridge, and occasionally sang in Southwark Cathedral. My gran grew up in considerable poverty in Victorian Greenwich. So, even though I’ve not been there since long before the empty Shard went up (echoes of Centre Point!) I felt an immediate connection. I’d like to read your article too if possible. Anyway, thanks for posting.

    • Adrian says:

      Hi Brian, sorry for such a slow response! I’ve not long finished my MSc dissertation which took over my life for the first part of this year. Drop me an email and I’ll send you a copy of the article.

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