My Least Favourite Grave
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My favourite grave? That is an unusual question ... but if anyone is equipped to answer....
I could choose the obvious: Karl Marx's massive beetle brows, Isaac Newton's hymn to science, Oscar Wilde's lipstick adorned Egyptian angel, Jim Morrison's folk-art installation... The only one to make me laugh out loud is in a village church in the New Forest where the inscription: a good and … husband, had the word 'faithful' chiselled away when new information came to light. Or the most astonishing, Dame Mary Page in Bunhill Fields, the inscription of which I can recite from memory: In 67 months she was tapped 66 times. Had taken away 240 gallons of water drawn without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation. The mind boggles! William Blake's is at the same site and is touching in an understated way. People leave flowers and letters on it. I would love to know what they write but it would be far too much of an intrusion to look.
No! It is an impossible question.
I could however tell you my least favourite grave with certainty.
I found it in those early few months of 2020, when we were watching footage of overcrowded Italian hospitals but still going about our lives as usual, unable to imagine anything like that could happen here. On the way to somewhere else in South Wales I stopped off in the village of Trellech, as you do, or as I do, to have a look at the church. In Norman times Trellech had been the seat of power for the region but was much reduced by brigands and plague and never recovered - but such a history leaves its marks and I hoped to find something of interest. I cannot say that I did but the church was fine enough. Medieval. Like most such places, what the Reformation failed to destroy well meaning Victorians later ruined, but it was still pleasing to the eye. I had a stroll through the grounds only to stretch my legs before returning to the car, but I was spotted, entirely discovered in fact, by a friendly local.
He was an older gentleman like myself, quite English but many of them are in those parts, and was, he claimed, a trainee campanologist returning from practice. He spied out my interest in the graves and took the opportunity to unload himself of all the trivia he had accumulated. Of one in particular he wished to speak. I had already spotted it, it was a grand thing, with a high tomb and marble ledger stone. The inscription revealed that its occupant, a mister George Watkins, who died in 1841, was a native of the parish but had in fact died in Pimlico – which had piqued my interest a little but such transportations are not unknown.
My new friend revealed to me that mister Watkins was, in fact, a suicide, and a gruesome one at that, having apparently cut his own throat with a kitchen knife. He had also left remarkably specific instructions as to his internment. The tomb we stood in front of topped a brick vault of precise specifications containing not one but two coffins, the outer a French-polished mahogany thing with all the finest accoutrements, the inner of solid oak and generously lead lined.
So far so curious, but I went on my way and thought nothing more on it until, three days later, I passed the sign to Trellech on my return to Oxford and it popped back into my mind. At which point some details of it began to trouble me. They reminded me, in an oblique way, of the old medieval European belief in Manducation; the phenomenon of corpses, insatiably hungry, consuming their own shrouds. The belief was primarily centred around Poland and Germany and lasted at least into the eighteenth century; a man named Ranft published a book on how to prevent it in 1728. It is often cited as part of the origin myths of vampirism (I have no authority with which to deny this except to point out that there are some so fond of vampires they see them everywhere).
Ranft's work largely concerns physical prevention of chewing, stones and bricks in the mouth, etc. The origin of dear old Bram Stoker's stake through the heart is the simple method of preventing a corpse from perambulating by physically pinning it to the ground. Wonderfully practically minded, some of our ancestors.
This was the thought that troubled me as I crossed the Severn bridge. Was that fortress of a tomb in Trellech designed to keep things out, or keep its occupant in?
Trellech, like all such places, has its fair share of amateur historians and one of these was able to supply me, once I discovered his email address, with an admirably complete write up of the tomb and its occupant. This confirmed all my graveyard wandering friend had told me and added some grisly details about mister Watkins' servants discovering him in the act of destroying himself. It also stated that he left instruction in his will to have his chest opened and examined by a doctor before burial, the author supposing that he feared being buried alive. Finally, it supplied me with the Pimlico address, Trelleck (either spelling is acceptable) Terrace- apparently mister Watkins was something of a homesick property developer.
A man who wishes to be buried somewhere so very specific must also have somewhere in mind he does not wish to be buried. Trelleck Terrace is no longer in existence, at least not by that name, but some digging found the rough location and, more pertinently, the parish to which it belonged. Having no other call on my time I took the train down to London the following Sunday and attended a sung mass. The church was one of those chocolate-box Victorian Gothic stone churches you find dotted around the wealthier parts of London. The mass was sparsely attended (such are the times I suppose) and a bit 'high' for my tastes, but the choir were superb. The vicar was keen to chat to a new face of course, and, with a little charm and a few white lies, I obtained for myself sight of the church records.
I returned in the afternoon and one of the wardens led me to an office in the vestry where he had already taken out the books for the period. Working backwards from the date of Mr Watkins' death, I soon found exactly what I feared I might. A startling eight exhumations were made between October and November 1839. No reasons were given as to why.
Later that week I spent a day in the British Library scouring periodicals of the time for any reason why so many graves might be disinterred. There was none. Little did I know it, but that was to be the last time I went anywhere for some months, the following week we were in what they called lockdown - a neologism I have yet to acquire a comfort with.
Would that I had a proper job or a family to make demands of me, but no, all I had was time and curiosity. Confined to my home but still with internet and telephone, I made a discreet request to a friend in Canterbury and, while waiting for her to respond, and with no better use for my time, I also managed to trace the descendants of the then vicar. To these people I enquired, together with a concocted story about compiling a history of the area, as to whether any diaries or papers might still exist.
My friend in Canterbury was stymied by her own confinement but, to my surprise, a descendant of the vicar's responded within days. Vicarring, it seemed, had remained the family trade for a further four generations and all the practitioners diaries were kept as a sort of reference manual and still existed, dusty and unregarded but safe and complete, on a bookshelf in St Albans. On supply of references these were shipped to me with the request that they be returned within two months. Two hours would have sufficed but would have put the lie to my purpose.
I went straight to the 1839 diary, and to the date of the first exhumation, but the page for it had been neatly cut away. Only the fragment ...from evil, and this gives me strength remained on the following page.
The date of the last exhumation had this to say:
The bad business is concluded. Worth has paid the labourers a bonus and they have given me their word not to speak of the matter.
I scoured the rest of the diary for mention of Worth and, from the few references, inferred that he was a prominent member of the parish, a landowner in Hampshire who had a townhouse in Pimlico. This was enough to identify him in public records. I contacted his family with the same request but was eventually informed that no diaries or papers from the period still existed.
Had it been an ordinary time I might have given up there, but instead I persisted. I reasoned that if the vicar had placed his confidence in Worth, a rich visitor for the season, and also -if my theory was correct- in George Watkins, then perhaps there were other worthies of the parish he confided in. I spent my empty days with what items from the land registry, parish notices, wedding announcements, and society articles I could access online, and compiled myself a list of notable residents. From this I found descendants and family trusts and dispatched forth letters and emails.
For a long time this yielded nothing but a few polite replies saying no records survived. A family by the name Saxby sent me a sad little list of the few papers they had and it was obviously not worth pursuing. A family by the name of Mackrory invited me, when I was permitted to travel, to visit their house in Roxburghshire where they had a library I could lose myself in for a year, but it quickly became clear through our correspondence that none of them were present in London in the autumn of 1839. A family by the name Smith-Allen had donated all its papers to the university of Utah would you believe! There, they had been lovingly digitised and catalogued and I was granted a login to their system. There was nothing of interest but, suspecting my usage might be recorded, I spent hours trawling through all the references to Pimlico in the 1830s as if I was planning to write the history I said I was.
Months passed. We were allowed to leave our homes and then confined to them again. I managed, masked, vaccinated, and tested, to follow up the few leads I had not been able to follow online but they all came to naught. For a time I gave up the chase. Then, over a year after I had contacted her, my friend at Canterbury replied. Canterbury had nothing, she said, but she had travelled to Westminster and there found a letter to the Dean from the church in Pimlico asking for advice concerning sounds of chewing and moaning emanating from the graves.
If the Dean had made any reply it was not recorded.
I do not know if the Church of England has ever found itself in need of an official position on Manducation. The church in Rome, when such a thing was required of it, eventually decreed that the Devil was manipulating the jaws of the deceased so as to convince their families they had been denied access to heaven – a slander on the dead. It did not, under any circumstances, countenance the existence of vampires.
The vampires of medieval myth are, of course, a long way from the fanged and dress-shirted creatures of popular culture. They walked at night more lost and confused than with diabolical purpose, blood drinking does occasionally occur I think but their chief danger is as bringers of plagues (a curse, I should add, germ theory being still a few centuries away). Vampirism as contagion is, I think, entirely an invention of literature.
Writers on these myths (and there are far too many in my opinion, all of whom should have spent more time outdoors as children) tend to dismiss them as the explainable phenomena of rotting corpses over-interpreted by simple folk, but always, it seems to me, skipping inconvenient details. A body might be bloated because of the gasses caused by decomposition, not gluttony, and its shroud was just naturally sucked into its mouth – no mystery there. If the accounts said it sat upright and appeared to breath when the coffin lid was opened, we do not doubt it but dismiss it as the action of those same gasses, and we forgive the poor uneducated ancients who leapt to other conclusions. But if the same account also says it returned under its own power to the place where it lived and called for its loved ones, well that was obviously the imagination of foolish peasants and does not merit justification.
I redoubled my efforts, searching for new contacts for all the families where I had not already received a reply. I received yet more apologies, and a handful more leads which went nowhere, until eventually, more than two years after my conversation in the Trellech churchyard, I was invited down to a house in Gloucesterhire to view the archive of the Hume family, now in the care of the National Trust.
And so, on a spring day, in a ground floor office in a well proportioned house of yellow Cotswold stone, while visitors walked by the window admiring the garden, and Trust employees chatted and worked on their computers, I leafed through seven boxes of unsorted family correspondence. In the fifth I found the following in a letter from son to father, from Pimlico to Gloucestershire, and had to hold my breath as I read it in order not to attract attention.
The matter I mentioned last week has gone ahead and it was a nasty business. Besides myself was the vicar and the curate, two senior groundsmen, Robert Worth, Worth's man Cartwright, George Watkins, and Doctor Prosser. I had the pepper-box with me. Worth, I believe, had also come armed.
The men were slow in the digging, more accustomed these days to overseeing the work of others, and in the end Cartwright, the curate, and myself all took turns at it. It was gone two in the morning before the hole was large enough to remove the box. The noise, by then, was audible to all of us.
Inside was a horror I will not soon forget. The thing had chewed through the shroud which wrapped its head - although blessedly its eyes were still covered. It had chewed off its lips and its tongue and these were ragged and bloody. It had managed to free one of its arms from its bindings and this was gnawed almost to the wrist. When the lid was opened it tried to rise on the stump of its hand and made such a noise as was horrific to all of us. I confess I forgot myself and put three shots through its chest with the pepper-box. For a while we were all concerned that this would attract unwanted attention and the curate was sent off to intercept anybody roused and keep them from the grave.
The shots had no effect on the thing except to lower its volume though dearth of air.
The doctor examined it as best he was able. Cartwright and one of the groundsmen holding it down. It was he who confirmed the tongue was gone. He said it had been removed to the full extent it could be pushed between the teeth. He also drew our attention to where it had begun to destroy the lid of the coffin above its mouth.
He put a stop to its chewing by severing the muscles of its jaw but this did not silence it. That he did by opening its lungs. This done we had no option but to return it, still writhing, to its grave.
The vicar says that he has identified seven more graves from which noises arise and it was agreed that these would be dealt with over the coming weeks. None of them will be as fresh and neither Watkins nor myself will have the nerve to attend again.
And so I found my answer even if I would much rather I had not. I went for a walk in the garden but the spring day had turned dark, the sun long gone behind a growing mass of thunderous and purple clouds. I sat on a bench and thought about poor George Watkins, terrified of the fate which might await him after death and doing everything in his power to prevent it. His long and exacting will, full of precise instructions and carefully budgeted payments for all the services his dead body would require. Was it enough?
I was surprised out of my thoughts by a friendly Trust employee. She was sorry but the house was about to close for the day, and would I be returning tomorrow? I told her I would not.
I drove, not east toward Oxford, but west and down through the Wye valley toward Trellech, arriving in the dark and in a rainstorm. Lit by my phone I found mister Watkins' grave again and laid my head atop its damp stone. I fancied, perhaps... but no, it was just the drumming of the raindrops. That much marble, and a lead lined coffin, would deaden any sound.
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a detective story worth
a detective story worth chewing over.
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