When I say “vacation,” you say “beach!” When I say “holiday,” you say “party!” Maybe you wouldn’t consider spending your vacation or trip by visiting crypts (sites of burial), but that’s exactly how many people spend their trips.
It’s day five on my travel study to London, and I’ve already seen the tombs of Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Elizabeth I, William Blake, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and many, many kings named George. We’ve visited at least two crypts, one at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and one at Westminster Abbey. Both of these beautiful churches are filled with hundreds of graves. In Westminster, you can barely take a step without passing over the tombs of old war heroes, early scientists, various royals, and wealthy patrons. Yet everywhere we go, the churches and crypts are full of visiting tourists. You have to wonder, why are people so obsessed with seeing graves?
I remember walking into Westminster Abbey and being totally overcome with the beauty. It’s a huge, gothic building which has served as a burial place for most of England’s kings and queens for 1,000 years. My second reaction was different: I thought, holy cow, this is just a giant, indoor cemetery. Cheery.
However, I started to feel differently after stumbling across the tomb of Charles Darwin. No really, I actually tripped across it as I did a double take. This was really him? The man who revolutionized science as we know it today? I felt a warmth spreading across my body. I was feet away from one of my heroes.
Then I began to feel conflicted. After all, is it right for me to feel excited and happy to see this man who has been gone for over a hundred years? Why do I feel so excited? My first guess is that coming into contact with the rich and famous makes people feel special. Seeing the grave of Queen Elizabeth I, one of the most powerful female rulers in western history, can make you feel like you’ve seen something that matters; it can make you feel like maybe you matter.
The answer finally came when I least expected it. As I wandered around Westminster Abbey, I suddenly came across an area labeled “Poet’s Corner.” I began to see names; T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, C.S. Lewis. People whose writing I’ve read before. People who I LOVE to read. Without realizing it, my eyes began to water. I was looking at my friends. These were the writers who had influenced literature as I know it today. Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer. These were the writers who gave me everything I have today as a writer.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Why do we like to visit the tombs of famous people?
The reason we like to see graves is that it reminds us of our place in the world. The beautiful tombs and monuments remind us of where we have come from and where we will go. Because of the writers in Poet’s Corner, I have found a love of literature and writing.
It’s tempting to think of these heroes as supernatural beings. It’s so, so tempting to believe that they are somehow better than we are. But standing at their tomb, I am reminded that all of these famous people were only human. They are memorialized because of the good they did in the world, but they were only human, as human as you and I.
We can also do the same good in the world. We can accomplish just as much they did. Sometimes, we just need a nudge. And that’s why it’s okay to visit cemetaries on vacation.