Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
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.