Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead. Creative Section

Revisiting the Churchyard


  • James Metcalf King's College London



Thomas Gray, churchyard, pilgrimage, thanatourism


The churchyard has always been a site of pilgrimage. The remains of the dead, sanctified as holy relics, conferred a hallowed status on their location in the earth; this, in turn, became a destination for travellers. By the eighteenth century, ‘pilgrims’ consciously mapped their interest in literary remains onto these sacred spaces, drawing their pursuit of literary tourism into a long history of travel to the realms of the venerated dead. Using a series of photographs, I retrace my churchyard pilgrimages in London and Thomas Gray’s Stoke Poges, reflecting on the context of thanatourism and thinking about the ways in which the places of the dead—chief among them the churchyard—still mean today.

Author Biography

James Metcalf, King's College London

James Metcalf is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London. He recently completed his doctoral thesis entitled ‘The Contemplators: Poetry and the Churchyard in the Long Eighteenth Century’, which reappraises the conventional category of ‘graveyard poetry’ by focusing on the eighteenth-century occupation of the churchyard as the specific locus of a death-centred poetics of contemplation. Reconsidering the work of Thomas Parnell, Robert Blair, Edward Young, and Thomas Gray, James’ thesis also reveals a continuity of poetic preoccupation with the churchyard by including traditionally ‘Romantic’ writers, such as Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, as they adopt and revise its history, culture and poetics. His current research interests concern literary responses to the revelations of earth science in the long eighteenth century. E-mail:





Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead. Creative Section