Celebrations for the outcast dead

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LONDON — The Southwark district has long had an association with the esoteric world, being the home of 20th-century occultist Austin Osman Spare and (before the fire which ravaged it) the Cuming Museum, which housed the Lovett collection of magical artifacts. More recently one of its hidden gems has become the focus of a small but dedicated following among British Pagans, occultists, and indeed Christians and members of other religious groups. This is an example of several events and gatherings which are not part of any organized inter-faith movement in the U.K., but which have developed organically across Pagan, Christian and other religious groups.

Cross Bones gate [Wikimedia Commons].

This particular place is the cemetery of Cross Bones, dating from the medieval period. It is a graveyard for the outcast dead; mainly the medieval prostitutes of Southwark who were known as the ‘Winchester geese’ (as they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester) ,and who worked in the area known as the Mint, one of Southwark’s worst slums. They were licensed to work in the Liberty of the Clink, which lay beyond the law of the city of London.

Cross Bones closed in 1853, and still houses the bones of an estimated 15,000 people. In the 1990s, the graveyard was disturbed as a result of the establishment of the Jubilee railway line. Poet and writer John Constable experienced a vision, in 1996, in which the spirit of the outcast women, an entity known as ‘the Goose,’ came to him, and inspired his epic cycle of south London lore, the Southwark Mysteries. This series of poems, plays and esoterica was performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral, and Constable is still involved with Cross Bones today. The cemetery has become something of a shrine, its gates decorated with ribbons dedicated to the dead, and there is an event there every month to honor the people whose bones lie in the graveyard. This is a non-denominational event, but U.K. Pagans are closely involved and many attend the monthly ceremony. Constable, writing as John Crow, says,

Friends of Crossbones has always recognised that Crossbones was an unconsecrated burial ground, without gravestones or other markers, which for centuries was ravaged by body-snatchers and hit-and-run developers. We’ve consistently worked to remember and honor the ‘outcast dead,’ along with living outsiders, in creative acts that celebrate their lives and their value to society. Rather than attempt to recreate a conventional cemetery, we’ve emphasised the wild garden and the folk art: the flowers growing through cracks in the tarmac, the rubble used to create garden beds, the throw-away objects transformed into DIY shrines and artworks, the deliberately primitive map, the shrine at the gates. All this reflects the spirit of Crossbones as a place of transformation which challenges the values of the dominant culture. The Dean of Southwark Cathedral recognised all this, choosing to perform an ‘Act of Regret’ rather than seeking to reconsecrate the site or to introduce crosses or gravestones.

The cemetery has recently become host to several art initiatives, with concerns that these should not turn into an example of the corporate art world co-opting local initiatives and informal practice. A sonic installation has caused some controversy, since it apparently blacked out some of the DIY features which have been placed there by local visitors to the garden. There is an awareness that there may need to be some resistance to the big artistic organisations of the capital ‘claiming’ Cross Bones as a ‘sad, forgotten place’ when it has in fact been a vibrant focus for celebration by a variety of spiritualities for many years. The cemetery guardians are cautious of events and installations that “exemplify ‘top down’ attempts to appropriate the power of people (and specifically the power of the powerless,” according to Constable.

However, these concerns aside, it is clear that the monthly events at Cross Bones have become a focus for everyone who is sensitive to the geographical magic of London, to gather and honor the dead. Hedgepriestess Jacqueline Durban says, “Crossbones is an absolute wonder in my mind, and she has a way of looking after herself. After all, who would have thought that a tiny group of relative edge-people could end up persuading [Transport for London] to allow a garden on a site that’s worth millions to them? . . . now it’s there and full of butterflies, bees and dragonflies. I doubt that the geese ever saw anything so beautiful and now they are buried in it. Who could ever have dreamed that such a thing could happen? . . .  that is magic, whatever path you happen to follow. Crossbones is an absolute beacon of hope on a world that often feels beyond redemption.”

Constable’s Southwark Mysteries was first produced in the Globe Theatre in 2000. It was then staged in Southwark Cathedral on Easter Sunday later that year, and again in 2010, generating substantial controversy in the fundamentalist Christian community over its perceived Pagan elements. However, as is explained on the epic’s web site, “The Dean of Southwark Cathedral recognised that, for all its explicit language and Pagan elements, the play was deeply rooted in Southwark’s unique cultural identity and Christ’s teachings of forgiveness.”

Events at Cross Bones are ongoing, and poems from Southwark Mysteries will be read next week on July 22, starting at 12.30 p.m., when the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd. Andrew Nunn, conducts a blessing of Cross Bones Garden of Remembrance, followed by a performance and picnic for St Mary Magdalene Day.

Constable, reporting from the spirit of Cross Bones, says, “Goose tells Crow: let’s do it! Without rancour or recriminations. Weaving our spells in subtle, imaginative ways. Calling all magicians, outcasts, outsiders, poets, lovers, madmen, LGBTQ+ and cis, sex workers – even office workers) to join us in the great work! To fully manifest our invisible wild garden in the heart of London. Goose, may your spirit fly free!”