Monday, 2 March 2015

Death without tears


I love stories like these - stories in which death impinges on our daily lives in a harmless, almost benign sort of way.

A big Paris department store has discovered over 200 bodies in their basement which have been there for centuries.

Of course, everyone knows that thousands  - possibly millions - of bodies lie just beneath the streets there, in the catacombs which were closed over a century ago because they ran out of space. Most other civilisations buried their dead without the city walls, but not the unhygienic French!

There was an even better story a few years ago, and that was when a fancy restaurant in Paris was entertaining a houseful of gastronomes when a side-wall collapsed, covering the diner's tables with dozens of crumbling skeletons and earthy detritus. How I wish I had been there to see that.

Here in Bath, there is only one section of medieval city wall left intact, and directly behind it there is a plaque saying that the dead of that parish were interred there, 'for the sake of the health of the living'.

About a quarter of a mile outside the Northgate (our house is built on the foundations of the wall which flanked it), there is a large, modern block which is the sheltered accommodation for quite a few elderly residents, some of whom are friends of ours. This home is built on top of the massive medieval plague-pit where thousands of dead Bathonians were interred in the late middle-ages.

Nearby that place is a Victorian mortuary chapel which is now used for art exhibitions, etc, and when the development of the adjacent site was underway, specialist contractors were brought in for the licensed disinterment of many graves there. I think the fee for the contractor for this was about £500 per grave.

They set up discreet hoardings - I thought to show a bit of respect for the dead which they would take out carefully one by one, but in fact it was to hide the sight of a massive digger which pulled them all out by the bucket-load for indiscriminate and jumbled burial elsewhere. You could hear the big diesel engine roaring away behind it for days.

Every night for weeks, the workers would come into the local pubs, offering human skulls for sale, along with the painted, photographic, zinc-plate portraits of the deceased which used to be fixed on the inside of the coffin lids. I was offered one of these and it had a great ridge in it, from when the worker had folded it in two to hide in his coat pocket, then unfolded it again in the pub, tearing off the over-painting at the same time.

Respect.

11 comments:

  1. All I can say to this is that i am glad I am not having my lunch as I read this.

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    1. Have some dinner instead then, Weave.

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  2. There's a dead body embedded in the wall next to my bed. Probably.

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  3. I surprised the pilfering was not mentioned to the authorities. It would have been easy to locate the offenders and those in charge.

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    1. So am , but I don't think anyone wanted to get anyone else prosecuted, and there were no living relatives involved in the planning.

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  4. Many of the London squares are plague pits which have never been built on. Surprised that Bath has allowed building on hers.

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    1. She didn't, and - in any event - the definition of an open square is that nothing is built on it anyway.

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    2. Having said that, the square next to the Abbey - Orange Grove - contains many corpses from the old monks of the abbey, interred there when it all belonged to Glastonbury.

      I have seen about 8 or 9 down there, and they were all filled in again. The square has never been built on, but surrounding ones have - unwittingly.

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  5. During my time at school, some Dean/Bishop or other decided to change the cathedral graveyard into a 'Garden of Peace'. All the old headstones were moved, and the ground levelled; turning-up all sorts of treasures. Boys were walking round with their pockets filled with bones, coffin hinges, etc (not me). No respect seemed to have been shown at all.

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    1. I saw the W.D. and H.O. Wills, Bristol memorial to the fallen of WW1 in marble, chopped-up and turned into fire-surrounds. 'Lest We Forget' my arse.

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