Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Trip to St. Paul’s Cathedral

The street leading to St. Paul’s Cathedral

We only have two more weeks here in London, so I’m starting to make a list of all the things I still want to see before we all head home or on to further travels. I was able to cross one of those items off my list today; I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral with two friends. It’s about a thirty-five minute walk from the Pickwick, which we happily did (even in the rain). It’s along a picturesque street that chang es names multiple times as you get closer to the cathedral (from Strand to Fleet to Ludgate Hill).

The front of St. Paul’s Cathedral

We arrived at the cathedral and entered into the bag check area, where Kayla was told she couldn’t bring her coffee into the church. “Oh, I know, but it’s empty! I just didn’t know where to throw it out. Is there a bin near here?” she asked the guard.

“No,” he said. “Put it outside on the steps.”

Kayla, understandably, was disturbed, “Just outside on the ground?”

“Yes. Someone will clean it in the morning.”

Kayla went outside and added her cup to a pile of a dozen coffee cups that had been discarded on the ground outside the cathedral’s entrance. “That looks nice,” we remarked.

We successfully passed the bag inspection on our second try and then queued up to buy tickets. They were expensive, and the two external dome galleries with views of the city were both closed. Our sixteen pound tickets gave us access to the main floor, the whispering gallery, and the crypt, along with an audio guide to listen to while we explored.

The main floor had some spectacular mosaics and gold decorations. At some points, the audio guide focused more on Christian doctrine than historical information, but overall it was interesting and comprehensive. The whispering gallery was crowded, but we enjoyed whispering to each other across the dome.

The gift shop in the crypt

After we finished with the main floor and the gallery, we went down into the crypt, which is also where the exit is located. We walked around and saw the tombs of the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Lord Nelson, and more. The floor was made out of tombstones, and we walked over hundreds of them. I constantly felt like I was desecrating people’s afterlives as my shoes contributed to the wear and tear of their tombstones’ engravings, but there was no alternate path through the crypt. Even after we returned the audio guides and were walking toward the exit, we were still on top of buried bodies. These tombstones, with bodies underneath, led all the way up to… the gift shop.

The gift shop sold a wide variety of souvenirs and was quite expansive, with two check out counters in separate rooms. Most disturbingly, the shop’s carpet was cut away at one point so that the edge of a tombstone wouldn’t be covered by it.

Gift shop in the Holy Trinity Church

This is not the first gift shop I’ve seen in an Anglican church. The Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, which we visited as a class to see where Shakespeare is buried, charged two pounds to enter and had a (smaller) gift shop near the back of the church.

I understand that entrance fees are an important part of St. Paul’s revenue; their 2015 yearly report began with, “The Cathedral’s finances remained vulnerable to the heavy reliance on paying visitor income.” However, the presence of a gift shop in a crypt, where real people are buried, is, in my opinion, kind of despicable. The audio guide’s mix of history and religious doctrine, along with the crypt’s odd mix of final resting places and commercialization, was distasteful and a bit bizarre. A gift shop in a separate building outside would have been fine! But if it’s necessary to have irregular carpeting to avoid covering graves, maybe you should reconsider your priorities.

Gift shop’s carpet cut away from a tombstone

As a non-religious person, I don’t have the benefit of a soft spot in my heart for churches or Christianity. What I saw was untainted by being a participant; I was in the out-group. I saw the commercialization and exploitation of history and the disrespect of people who chose to be buried in a famous, beautiful, and historic cathedral.

Maybe my criticisms are too idealistic, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that more could have been done to respect the sanctity of a burial place.

-Hannah Aylward, ’19

Author: aylwardh

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