Beer in the Churchyard – Is Nothing Sacred?

There has been some interesting press coverage recently – and a good deal of reported outrage – about a beer festival in late September at the grade I listed church of St Mary the Virgin in Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees. The main event took place inside the church itself, but naturally enough in the warm weather it also spilled out into the churchyard. Unnamed local residents were reportedly furious after guests set up chairs around headstones, placed drinks on them, with some even sitting on them – ‘disrespectful’ and ‘appalling’!

I think a beer festival is a great use for a church and churchyard. This festival has been going on for several years, but such events have a much longer history. Traditionally called ‘church ales’, they were a regular fixture in the Middle Ages in the life of rural churches. The churchwardens would brew the ale, the community would come together to celebrate, and the event would be a key way to raise funds for the upkeep of the church. Church ales often included musical and theatrical entertainment, and are the predecessor of the modern parish fete.

So what’s not to like? What seems most to have pained those who complained is the disprespect shown to the dead. That’s an interesting one, since the dead, of course, are beyond minding. Rather, the concern presumably is for the sensitivities of the living. Each era has its own funerary practices, based on its own understanding of death, and ours is increasingly confused; our problem is that we have no place for death. It is because we disown death that the physical evidence – the grave markers – are assumed to be ‘sacred’. By contrast, a medieval understanding, for example, was far more practical, straightforward and I suggest healthier – death was seen as integral to life, not something to be hidden away and barely mentioned, as we treat it today.

Personally, if when I’m dead my grave marker can double up as a seat for the weary traveller or indeed the social drinker celebrating life, then great – I promise not to feel disrespected!

Beer in a graveyard

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