Is there a correct way to memorialise someone after they have died? Why do myth and mystery attach themselves to places of remembrance, like graveyards? And how does our relationship with death in society shape our popular and creative culture? These were just some of the questions and themes encountered in a fascinating day-long symposium ‘Death and The Sacred’ at Manchester Metropolitan University on Friday 22 March.

Symposium Classroom

The symposium was a highly varied series of talks around academic papers submitted specially on the topic, a new film screening, a Writers-in-Conversation panel and a keynote speech from Simon Marsden (University of Liverpool). It was organised by Eleanor Beal (Associate Lecturer in English Literature and Film, MMU), who opened the conference at 9am with thanks, remarks on the varied content of the day and emphasis on the opportunity it provided to learn from multiple disciplines about a topic still arguably under-discussed in society, yet inevitable: death. She also reflected on the nature on the sacred in relation to death and the Gothic. In her Welcome Address, Eleanor spoke of the origin of the idea:

The theme of Death and the Sacred comes from my research interests in the intersections and dialogue between the secular and the religious in the contemporary period and, in particular, its  manifestation in Gothic literature and film [...] That some of you come from other, diverse fields serves to remind us all how important interdisciplinary encounter and engagement is to research and collaboration

The focus today, of course, is mainly on the sacredness of those interactions [with death] and, more broadly, what we might mean or value by the sacred. The sacred, is a religious term meaning a connection with God or gods and demarcating a person, place or ritual dedicated to a religious or other worldly purpose.

She went on to highlight the following lines of inquiry to be explored in the conference: Is the sacred divorced from the religious in this context? And does it therefore encompass a sacred sense of horror and darkness? Does the sacred ‘adhere to more mutable, polysemous and profane qualities than indicated by its religious etymology?’ Multiple questions were raised which would be encountered during the day. 

Academics from across the country had travelled to attend the symposium, which provided a unique opportunity to discuss papers from multiple disciplines on the themes of death, The Sacred, remembrance and related creativity – across religions and cultures. From English Literature and psychology to Religious Studies and Human Geography, a number of fields were covered on the day, by a number of Manchester Metropolitan University academics (including from The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) and academics from other institutions. Interested members of the public and students also attended the conference, which took place in the Brooks Building on the Birley Campus in Hulme.

A somewhat revised schedule did not detract from the varied range of subjects on offer. The morning consisted  of paper presentations  on the theme of ‘Cemeteries’ – starting with Siobhan Maguire-Broad (University of Huddersfield)  talking on ‘The Shadow of Death – What is Sacred in a Nonconformist Cemetery of a Cemetery - An Overview of St George’s Fields History’. This included an in-depth discussion of the history of St George’s Field, a former cemetery within Leeds University grounds and also artwork made by Siobhan in response to it (pictured below).

Siobhan Artworks

Other paper presentations in the morning included MMU’s Siobhan Barry who was considering concepts of architecture and elegiac memory in her ‘Art of Remembrance: Sculpting an Idea’. This was followed by the surprising topic of ‘The Goose is Loose; Awakening the Spirit at Crossbones Graveyard: Myth, Mystery, and Gendering Space’ from Lucy Talbot (University of Winchester). Lucy’s work looks at the strange supposed 1996 haunting of the playwright John Constable, and his ‘encounter’ with the spirit of a medieval prostitute  who led him to the long-forgotten ‘Crossbones’ Graveyard’. The final talk of the morning was from Jon Greenaway, also of MMU, considering ‘A Brief History of Skulls: The Function of Bones in Gothic Literature’ – and as Editor of the Dark Arts Journal, Jon’s work often encounters themes of the dark and unusual. All morning paper presentations were chaired by Steve Curtis and Emma Liggins.

A lunch-hour then followed, during which Chris Gerrard’s (The University of Dundee) film ‘Frankenstein Re-membered’ was screened: an artwork/essay film originally made for the Being Human Festival’s celebration of Mary Shelley’s original novel turning 200. The innovative use of Cinematic Multi-image created a complex and intriguing visual aesthetic, exploring death and the sacred in the cinematic history of the original text.

The afternoon then featured a highly-anticipated in-conversation event with four award-winning guest authors (pictured below, with Eleanor Beal introducing): Andrew Michael Hurley, Rosie Garland, Catherine Fox (the author name of Catherine Wilcox) and Jenn Ashworth – all reading from as well as discussing their work in front of an audience. This hour-and-a-half-long event began at 1pm, and was also chaired by Eleanor Beal. Readings began with Catherine Fox (see her previous HAUNT article on the influence of The Portico Library here), author and lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, who read from Realms of Glory ​which is the third and final novel in her Lindchester Chronicles. Andrew Michael Hurley followed (who HAUNT previously interviewed here), with a reading from his latest novel Devil’s Day which encounters delving themes of the rural Gothic, local superstition, death and the sacred. He also is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Writers In Conversation

A highly gripping exerpt from Jenn Ashworth followed – exploring the themes of her latest novel Fell, which encounters the haunting of the past around a family home in the Lancashire town of Grange Over Sands. The series of readings was completed with Rosie Garland (who is now writer-in-residence at Manchester's John Rylands Library) and an excerpt from her novel Vixen, which encountered concepts of superstition, death and remembrance around the time of the Black Death in evocative and moving detail. The authors then engaged in discussion over some of the themes raised, before the audience were invited to put questions forward.

A key aspect of the day as it unfolded was the genuinely genre-challenging nature of the content put forward, shaking up any preconceptions of what an encounter with death and the sacred would involve. Following a short break, more thought-provoking paper presentations followed, under the themes ‘Haunting and Purification’ and also ‘Martyrs’.  These included MMU’s Emma Liggins, also of The Manchester Centre For Gothic Studies, presenting ‘A Crypt-like Damp Filled My Mouth’: Sacred Space as Sepulchral and Haunting in the writing of John Ruskin and Vernon Lee’. A senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, Emma’s paper focused on French and Italian sacred space in the writing of her chosen authors. How did Victorian scared space encounter the Gothic? Could these spaces have been perceived as paradoxically troubling? These were just some of the themes encountered.

Another presentation from an MMU academic was ‘Deus Ex Atomica: Death, memorialisation and nuclear warfare’ by Becky Alexis-Martin (Lecturer in Political and Cultural; Geographies), who considered the meaning of scared spaces since the advent of nuclear warfare. This captivating subject encountered aspects as varied as talking to families affected by atomic warfare to the surprising Ed Grothus’ Church of High Technology.

The afternoon’s presentations were chaired by Leonie Rowland and Joseph Howsin, followed by a closing keynote from the University of Liverpool’s Dr Simon Marsden on the concept of delayed apocalypse. Titled, ‘‘“Yes, we await it! – but it still delays”: The Victorian Texts that Never End’, this was an extended reflection on not only literature, but mortality, the impact of culture and the memorialisation of it. Closing the day was a wine reception and book signing opportunity with the guest authors, as well as an optional conference dinner.

Exploring the differing in diverse ways in which concepts of death and the sacred are received in an increasingly secular age, this was a conference which was not only relevant but highly resonant, bringing together a range of interested individuals to discuss these themes – and starting many more fascinating lines of thought.

By Emily Oldfield, with thanks to Helen Darby and Eleanor Beal

Photography: with thanks to Helen Darby