There were many awe-inspiring moments on our recent tour of the Spanish cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada – the Alcazar in Seville, the mosaics in the Roman city of Italica and the courtyards of the Alhambra to name but three. But one of the most profound moments was viewing the actual coffins of the ‘Reyes Católicos’, Ferdinand and Isabella, in the Capilla Real in Granada. That was quite unexpected. Their marble momuments are splendid, but underneath lie their simple lead coffins. So much history focussed in two simple coffins! Click on this link to see a picture of the coffins. http://www.capillarealgranada.com/index.en.html
In the case of Ferdinand and Isabella there is little doubt that Granada is their final resting place. But the tomb of Columbus in Seville Cathedral is a different matter. Although he died in Spain, his body was taken to the Caribbean thirty years later as it was his wish to be buried there, but he was brought back to Seville in 1898. There is ongoing controversy as to whether the bones under that huge tomb are really his.
Why does it matter to us so much to be certain of the identity of bones? I recently watched a TV programme where Shakespeare’s tomb was scanned and where a mystery skull buried elsewhere was tested to see if it could be his (it wasn’t!). With amazing forethought Shakespeare had a curse placed on his tomb to avoid it being disturbed in the future.
Somehow a sense of place is important to us as we research our ancestors. To be able to visit (or at least see pictures of) the places where our ancestors lived helps us to appreciate more of their lives, but in many cases to be able to stand by their gravestones is also a special experience as we connect with the families who went before.
Increasingly this will be an unusual experience with the vast majority of people in this country now being cremated rather than buried and with there being no lasting memorial to visit. Perhaps that’s as it should be. We can still connect with the past through the places we visit and the objects we inherit without, as Ellis Peter’s first novel of the Cadfael Chronicles suggests, a “morbid taste for bones”.