Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Dealings with the Dead - 1856

In 1810, the disgusting confusion, in the catacombs of Paris, was so much a subject of indignant remark, that orders were issued to put things in better condition. A plan was adopted, for piling up the bones. In some places, these bones were thirty yards in thickness; and it became necessary to cut galleries through the masses, to effect the object proposed.
There were two entrances to the catacombs—one near the barrier d’Enfer, for visitors—the other, near the old road to Orleans, for the workmen. The staircase consisted of ninety steps, which, after several windings, conducted to the western gallery, from which others branched off, in different directions. A long gallery, extending beneath the aqueduct of Arcueil, leads to the gallery of Port Mahon, as it is called. About a hundred yards from this gallery, the visitor comes again to the passage to the catacombs; and, after walking one hundred yards further, he arrives at the vestibule, which is of an octagonal form. This vestibule opens into a long gallery, lined with bones, from top to bottom. The arm, leg, and thigh bones are in front, compactly and regularly piled together. The monotony of all this is tastefully relieved, by three rows of skulls, at equal distances, and the smaller bones are stowed behind. How very French! This gallery leads to other apartments, lined with bones, variously and fancifully arranged. In these rooms are imitation vases and altars, constructed of bones, and surmounted with skulls, fantastically arranged. This really seems to be the work of some hybrid animal—a cross, perhaps, between the Frenchman and the monkey.
William Harmer
Burial in Church at Saint Botolph's - Trunch
© Godric Godricson
These crypts, as they are called, are designated by names, strangely dissimilar. There is the Crypte de Job, and the Crypte d’Anacreon—the Crypte de La Fontaine, and the Crypte d’Ezekiel—the Crypte d’Hervey, and the Crypte de Rousseau. An album, kept here, is filled with mawkish sentimentality, impertinent witticism, religious fervor, and infidel bravado.
The calculations vary, as to the number of bodies, whose bones are collected here. At the lowest estimate, the catacombs are admitted to contain the remains of three millions of human beings.
While contemplating the fantastical disposition of these human relics, one recalls the words of Sir Thomas Browne, in his Hydriotaphia—“Antiquity held too light thoughts from objects of mortality, while some drew provocatives of mirth from anatomies, and jugglers showed tricks with skeletons.”
Here then, like “broken tea-cups, wisely kept for show,” are the broken skeletons of more than three millions of human beings, paraded for public exhibition! Most of them, doubtless, received Christian burial, and were followed to their graves, and interred, with more or less of the forms and ceremonies of the Catholic church, and deposited in the earth, there to repose in peace, till the resurrection! How applicable here the language of the learned man, whom we just quoted—“When the funeral pyre was out, and the last valediction over, men took a lasting adieu of their interred friends, little expecting the curiosity of future ages should comment upon their ashes; and having no old experience of the duration of their relics, held no opinion of such after-considerations. But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried! Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?” How little did the gay and guilty Jeane Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, imagine this rude handling of her mortal remains! She was buried in the Cemetery des Innocens, in 1764—and shared the common exhumation and removal in 1805.
The Aristocracy of the dead
© Godric Godricson
It seems to have been the desire of mankind, in every age and nation, to repose in peace, after death. In conformity with this desire, the cemeteries of civilized nations, the morais of the Polynesian isles, and the cities of the dead, throughout the world, have been, from time immemorial, consecrated and tabooed. So deep and profound has been the sentiment of respect, for the feelings of individuals, upon this subject, that great public improvements have been abandoned, rather than give offence to a single citizen.
Near forty years ago, a meeting was held in Faneuil Hall, to consider a proposition for some change, in the Granary burying-ground, which proposition, was rejected, by acclamation. During the Mayoralty, of the elder Mr. Quincy, it was the wish of very many to continue the mall, through the burial-ground, in the Common. The consent of all, but two or three, was obtained. They were offered new tombs, and the removal of their deceased relatives, under their own supervision, at the charge of the city. These two or three still objected, and this great public improvement was abandoned; and with manifest propriety. The basis of this sentiment is a deep laid and tender respect for the ashes of the dead, and an earnest desire, that they may rest, undisturbed, till the resurrection; and this is the very last thing, which is likely to befall the tenant of a TOMB; for the owner—and tombs, like other tenements, will change owners—in the common phraseology of leases, has a right to enter, “to view, and expel the lessee”—if no survivor is at hand to prevent, and the new proprietor has other tenants, whom he prefers for the dark and gloomy mansion. And they, in process of time, shall be served, in a similar manner, by another generation. This is no exception; it is the general rule, the common course of dealing with the dead. A tomb, containing the remains of several generations, may become, by marriage, the property of a stranger. His wife dies. He marries anew. New connections beget new interests. The tomb is useless, to him, because it is full. A general clearance is decreed. A hole is dug in the bottom of the tomb; the coffins, with an honorable exception, in respect to his late beloved, are broken to pieces; and the remains cast into the pit, and covered up. The tablet, overhead, perpetuates the lie—“Sacred to the memory,” &c. However, the tomb is white-washed, and swept out, and a nice place he has made of it! All this, have I seen, again and again.
 The dead progress into
the world of the living
© Godric Godricson
When a tomb is opened, for a new interment, dilapidated coffins are often found lying about, and bones, mud, and water, on the bottom. We always make the best of it, and stow matters away, as decently as we can. We are often blamed for time’s slovenly work. Grossman said, that a young spendthrift, who really cared for nothing but his pleasures, was, upon such an occasion, seized with a sudden fit of reverence for his great grandfather, and threatened to shoot Grossman, unless he produced him, immediately. He was finally pacified by a plain statement, and an exhibition of the old gentleman’s bones behind the other coffins. We could not be looked upon, more suspiciously, by certain inconsiderate persons, if we were the very worms that did the mischief. As a class, we are as honorable as any other. There are bad men, in every calling. There is no crime, in the decalogue, or out of it, which has not been committed, by some apostle, in holy orders. Doctors and even apothecaries are, occasionally, scoundrels. And, in a very old book, now entirely out of print, I have read, that there was, in the olden time, a lawyer, rara avis, who was suspected of not adhering, upon all occasions, to the precise truth. Tombs are nuisances. I will tell you why.

Project Gutenburg : Dealings with the Dead, Volume I (of 2)
Author: A Sexton of the Old School Boston 1856

No comments:

Post a comment