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As Church Shows Its Age, Bard Is Still the Rage

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England At 2:30 on a cold January afternoon, Paul Ruan walked into Holy Trinity Church, stood before William Shakespeare's grave and read the curse engraved on the headstone.

"Blese be ye man yt spares thes stones/And curst be he yt moves my bones."

"What does this mean?" asked Ruan, a native speaker of Chinese, struggling with the old-style English.

"It was a warning. If anybody disturbed these bones, they got cursed!" said Nigel Penn, 67, the energetic retired timber surveyor who helps out in this historic church on the River Avon. Shakespeare was baptized in the stone font, now stuffed with fake flowers, that sits beside the stone-topped grave where he was buried in 1616.

The practice in those days was that people interred in the church kept their piece of that prized real estate for 40 years, and then their bones were removed to make room for another body. But Penn said that shortly after Shakespeare's death, someone wrote a rhyme that was carved into his headstone warning that his bones should not be touched.

"It was obviously someone who thought a lot of him," Penn told Ruan, who nodded in agreement, snapping photos with a tiny digital camera. "A good friend, for sure."

Though some assume Shakespeare himself wrote the four-line epitaph, Penn said there was no evidence of that. "But it worked!"

At 2:45, a busload of Argentine students crowded around the brass railing and red velvet kneelers at the foot of the grave. Other visitors followed, eager to glimpse the final resting place of the man often called the world's greatest writer. Most paid the white-haired lady collecting the suggested (but not mandatory) $3 admission fee, $1 for students.

Money is a big issue for the 800-year-old church these days because the roof leaks, the metal in the windows is corroding and a small invasion force of deathwatch beetles is boring into the ancient timbers. It is a familiar story in England, where hundreds of centuries-old churches, left largely devoid of worshipers by a modern trend toward secularism, need hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of repairs.

A group called Friends of Shakespeare's Church is trying to raise more than $8 million. Penn added that British actress Judi Dench, who was nominated last month for a Best Actress Oscar, is a patron.

"It would be a great, great loss if this were to go," Penn said, upset at how the church has deteriorated. A thin man in a pinstriped suit, he cast his eyes up at the 50-foot wooden ceilings and pointed out where, during storms, water runs down the pillars.

Ruan, a Beijing native studying finance at a British university, looked puzzled as he continued to stare at Shakespeare's grave, located to the left of the altar, beside the resting place of his wife, Anne Hathaway. "Shakespeare was so important in literature, so why is he not buried in the center?" Ruan asked.

More than 200,000 people visit the church each year, many from Japan and the United States and a growing number from China, and many ask the same thing.

Penn dived into an answer, explaining passionately that Shakespeare's prominent burial site in the church had nothing to do with his literary talent. It was because Shakespeare was a lay rector of the church, which entitled him to burial there (although not necessarily in the center).

As Ruan headed back to the center of town a few blocks away, the Argentine teenagers buzzed around the grave, snapping photos of one another. One, who gave his name only as Nicolas, was unimpressed: "There are too many dead people here."

But this one dead person kept attracting a crowd.

At 3:45, a German couple walked in, seemingly star-struck as they gazed at the resting place of the author of "Romeo and Juliet." Collins Davis, 25, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer from Alabama, approached the grave, amazement on his face. "We don't have anything this old in the United States," he said, kneeling to take photos.

At 4 p.m., as the fading afternoon sunlight shone weakly though the stained-glass windows, Sandra Hutchings, an Australian, explained the place's international draw: "We have all been touched by him, whatever nationality you are."

Cath Blann was one of the few English people in the old English church on this Sunday afternoon.

"I thought he was buried at Westminster Abbey," she said, referring to the London landmark where Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and other giants of English literature lie. Maybe, she said, the British take some of their history for granted because they are "surrounded by it all the time."

As she spoke, her giggling son began to crawl under the brass railing, and she gently pulled him back. "Aidan, darling," she said, "don't crawl on Shakespeare's grave."

Penn happily kept fielding questions, particularly about the curse, until 5 p.m., time to close up and prepare for Sunday evening service.

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