In the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, stands a strange relic: the tomb of Hugh Ashton (?-1522). Ashton was a close associate of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Margaret founded the College in 1511, two years after her death in 1509, with a bequest from her will. Ashton was a great benefactor to the College and was entombed in the original pre-Tudor Chapel. When that was knocked down to build the far larger Victorian Chapel, Ashton’s tomb was replanted in the new ante-chapel. What became of his body is unknown: was it moved with the tomb or buried underneath the Chapel foundations?
Ashton’s tomb is a wonderful example of a Cadaver Tomb: featuring a life-sized statue of Ashton as in life above, vibrantly painted, and an emaciated corpse below in plain grey stone, representing Ashton as he is in death. Cadaver tombs were only made for high-ranking nobles, and it was a sign of great respect to have one. With their richly decorated upper level, the tomb hints at the wealth and status Ashton enjoyed in life. With the decomposing corpse and undecorated sepulchre beneath, the tomb shows the futility and vanity of wealth and the inevitability of death, the great equalizer.
Ashton’s tomb acts as a large-as-life memento mori, reminding the visitor that they too will end up like Ashton’s corpse, regardless of nobility and influence in life. Some visitors to the Chapel today find it morbid, but in my experience school children who visit love it!