Hawking Enters 'Britain's Valhalla,' Where Space Is Tight
Posted June 15, 2018 10:08 a.m. EDT
Updated June 15, 2018 2:31 p.m. EDT
LONDON — Being laid to rest in Westminster Abbey is perhaps the greatest posthumous honor that can be given to any Briton, and when Stephen Hawking’s ashes were interred there Friday, they were placed between the remains of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, two of the giants of science.
But rare though it may be, entry to what is sometimes called “Britain’s Valhalla” does not involve a complicated process, according to the Very Rev. John R. Hall, the dean of Westminster.
Actually, he says, it’s up to him to decide.
An engaging, humorous and commanding figure, Hall relishes the history surrounding his unique position, and sees Hawking’s ceremony in the context of the thousands that have come before in a place of worship that was founded more than a thousand years ago.
“We buried Isaac Newton here eight days after he died,” said Hall, speaking in his office next to the ancient abbey. “We also took an immediate decision in 1882 about Charles Darwin.”
Hawking qualifies not just because of his contributions to science but also by virtue of the inspirational life he lived in the face of huge obstacles. The religious views of a man sometimes described as the world’s most famous atheist were not disqualifying, Hall said.
“Whether he was actually an atheist, whether he was actually an agnostic, what his position was, is not, to my mind, entirely clear,” Hall said. “My position is quite simply this: Whether a person believes in God or not, if someone is achieving extraordinary things then I believe God is in that process.”
More than 3,300 Britons are buried or commemorated in the abbey, and a walk through its Gothic splendor, under pointed arches, ribbed vaulting and flying buttresses, provides a remarkable, if eclectic, tour of a millennium of history, culture and scientific progress.
Many of those laid to rest here are long forgotten, but there are splendid memorials, including one to Queen Elizabeth I, who is among 17 monarchs lying alongside some of the nation’s greatest poets, scientists and musicians.
King George II, who died in 1760, was the last monarch to be buried at Westminster (the royal family now favors Windsor). With space at a premium, the abbey stopped conducting burials in the early part of the last century, though this was not a completely smooth process.
In 1907, the abbey was expecting the cremated remains of Angela Burdett-Coutts, a prominent philanthropist, but received her body instead. “They buried her standing up,” Hall said.
The last burial, in 1920, was that of the Unknown Warrior, a memorial to those who died in World War I. This slab of black Belgian marble, covering the remains of a soldier and soil from France, is the only stone that visitors are not permitted to walk upon.
The abbey’s venerable reputation as a prestigious resting place dates from the burial of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, in 1066 (he was canonized in 1161 and his body was later transferred to a new shrine).
But it really took off after the reformation, when Elizabeth I refounded the abbey, giving it a special status answerable to the monarch. It was around this time that it became a popular burial place for an elite jostling to remain as close to their patrons in death as they were in life, reflecting the power politics of the day.
The honor was not always a lasting one. Oliver Cromwell was buried here in 1658, after he helped dethrone and execute King Charles I. But three years later, after the restoration of the monarchy, his body was dug up and hung from a gallows at Tyburn, London’s main public execution site.
By then the abbey’s association with literary figures — the genesis of its Poets’ Corner — had begun to take hold, though by chance rather than design. Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400, was buried in the abbey only because he served in the royal household. In the 16th century, when Chaucer’s writing grew in popularity, literary figures began to feel that this was where they, too, belonged. By the time Charles Dickens died in 1870, the lure of the abbey trumped even his family’s plan for a burial at Rochester Cathedral.
“He was rather keen on being buried in Rochester but we wanted him,” said Hall, adding with some emphasis: “We prevailed.”
So established was the abbey in the national psyche that there was talk of extending it to create a formal Valhalla, a hall for dead heroes, though this idea was abandoned when the practicalities of digging up and reinterring the deceased were examined.
So, while in the 19th century the abbey staged grand funerals, and prime ministers like Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were buried or commemorated with large statues, “the 20th-century trend was toward memorial services, memorial tablets and occasionally the interment of ashes,” said David Cannadine, Dodge professor of history at Princeton University and president of the British Academy.
“This was partly because there was an understandable concern that the abbey was filling up and getting overcrowded; partly because schemes for the construction of a new and adjacent imperial Valhalla came to nothing; and partly because modes of commemoration have generally become less elaborate,” said Cannadine, who is editing a history of the abbey. Despite this trend there have been some awkward moments for Hall, who has authorized memorials for around a dozen people during his time here — on average around one a year — but also rejected a few.
So far no one has lobbied him for their own future place in the abbey, though some have on behalf of the recently deceased.
“The tricky areas are where there is a sort of expectation that a particular poet might be memorialized in Poets’ Corner,” he said, adding that the judgment has to be about “their lasting significance.” Ted Hughes, for instance, was deemed worthy.
Hall has memorialized modern figures, such as broadcaster David Frost, but he seems reluctant to stray too much into the territory of popular culture.
Asked if someone like musician David Bowie might be given a place, he politely declined to answer, though his body language suggested that this would be unlikely.
The one person who can confidently expect a spot is Hall himself, as tradition dictates that deans of Westminster are interred here — though even this, he said, will be at the discretion of one of his successors.
For them the decisions can only get tougher. Though there is no formal estimate of the amount of available floor space, the squeeze on the abbey gets tighter with the passing of the years.
“The abbey is only 1,000 years old at the moment,” Hall said, again taking the long view. “It’s going to be here for thousands of years, presumably, so they will probably have to be a bit more cautious in the future.”