19 October 2016
The flat in which Jimmy Savile lived for more than 30 years has been demolished. In the wake of the allegations that surfaced after his death, at the request of his relatives his £4,000 gravestone was removed from his burial plot in the night. The inscription was ground off and the stone was broken up and sent to landfill. The grave is now unmarked.
The same approach is often found in such cases. Fred and Rosemary West’s home in Gloucester, known as the House of Horrors because so many murders took place there and so many bodies were buried there, was demolished in 1996. After his suicide Fred West’s body was cremated and his ashes scattered at an unknown location. The remains of Myra Hindley and Harold Shipman were treated in the same way.
There are several reasons for demolishing the properties of these notorious criminals and affording them no visible grave. Every brick of the Wests’ house was crushed and the timbers burned to discourage souvenir hunters, and there were concerns that Savile’s grave could become a kind of ‘sick tourist attraction’. This week it has been announced that the house in which Hitler was born will be bulldozed to prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. But there’s also a collective need to erase the remaining physical evidence that such people ever existed and to afford them no honour in their deaths. Burial in an unmarked grave has always been an ignominious end, with no earthly reminder of the dead. In biblical times graves were marked clearly to prevent accidental contact with the dead and uncleanness (Luke 11:44), though the poor and strangers might be buried in a Potter’s Field (Matthew 27:3-8).
A relevant practice in the Old Testament is ‘the ban’ or herem, which entailed the complete destruction of an enemy and their property in order to cleanse the land of their sins, as was the fate of Jericho and Ai in the book of Joshua and the Canaanite nations listed in Deuteronomy 20. ‘Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.’ (Deuteronomy 20:18)
What happened to Jimmy Savile’s grave and flat can be considered something like a modern-day equivalent of the herem. As a BBC article in 2012 stated, ‘Plaques have been taken down, buildings renamed, street signs removed, two charities closed. A footpath in Scarborough was Savile’s View. Now the sign has gone. His freedom of the borough will be suspended. A wall commemorating high-profile citizens in Leeds Civic Hall has had the inscription of Savile’s name removed… Having said three weeks ago they would not change the name of Savile’s Hall conference centre in Leeds, owner Royal Armouries International announced a change of mind this week at a cost of £50,000.’
Whilst this reflects a desire to change the past, it doesn’t bring the ability or the desire to forget. As the BBC article states, the Romans knew the concept of damnatio memoriae, the damnation of the memory, but we still remember today those whose statues were disfigured and names erased from memorials. Neither does the Bible suggest the Canaanites should be forgotten. It’s just that their histories are written in a way that ensures they cannot be glamourised.
In the Bible, the herem had spiritual significance, purging the land of sin as well as framing collective memories of them. In our increasingly secular culture, there’s an open question about how we view and deal with the few things we still agree are truly sinful.