Death in Cambridge: Medieval hospital burial ground unearthed

In my professional life, I work for Cambridge University doing media things. This story came up this week, and I thought it had relevance to our deathly interests. Enjoy!

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Archaeological investigations have discovered one of Britain’s largest medieval hospital cemeteries, containing over 1,000 human remains, when excavating beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College. One of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds in Britain, containing an estimated 1,300 burials, once stood on the site of what is now part of St John’s College, according to a report published in the latest issue of the Archaeological Journal.

The report marks the first public release of evidence gathered by an archaeological dig beneath the Old Divinity School, conducted as part of the Victorian building’s refurbishment in 2010-2012. The report reveals that the complete skeletal remains of over 400 medieval burials were uncovered by a team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, along with “disarticulated” and fragmentary remains of what could be as many as 1,000 more individuals. Images from the dig are available on the St John’s College website HERE.

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Death in Cambridge: the Duckworth Laboratory

As soon as I saw this video, I knew we had to feature it as a Death in Cambridge post. I had no idea that the Duckworth Laboratory even existed! It is part of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and contains amazing collections including skulls, skeletons, death masks, mummies and much more besides. Sadly it is not open to the public as a museum, but it is still an incredible research resource. In this video, you can watch Dr Ronika Power from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology take you on a behind the scenes tour of this hidden deathly treasure:

Author interview: Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

We were delighted to be contacted by Bess Lovejoy’s publisher (Duckworth Publishers) to ask if we would be interested in interviewing her ahead of the UK release of her excellent book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses on 25th September 2014. Of course we said yes! I’ve already read the US edition of the book and know it to be a fantastic read. I will post a review of the book in the next few days so watch this space.

So we sat down with Bess (albeit at different computers situtated at different geographical locations halfway around the world from each other) and got down to business.

DP: Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to answer some of our questions. So you have a new book coming out in the UK called Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses and it is a fascinating read. What inspired you to write this book?

Bess: I used to work on a series called Schott’s Almanac, and we would spend a lot of time reading the news to try to find things to write about. In December 2008, a co-worker sent me a Guardian article about the painter Francis Bacon that really piqued my interest. According to the article, before Bacon died in 1992 he told a barman at the Colony Room Club in Soho, “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” Bacon never actually ended in the gutter, but after he died a friend photographed him inside a plastic bag at the morgue. The photo became the centerpiece of a show used to raise money for the Colony Room Club, and that caused a bit of an uproar about bad taste, etc. A few days after that, the BBC ran articles about the pianist André Tchaikowsky, who willed his skull to the Royal Shakespearean Theatre Company, and people got very upset about that too. It got me wondering about the last wishes of famous people, particularly artistic people whom I admired. I started looking into those stories and quickly realized the most interesting stories were not about what people wanted to happen after they died, but what did happen. And then I realized that no one had collected a whole bunch of those stories in one book before.

DP: Doing the research for the book must have involved a lot of work and chasing down obscure references. How did you find the whole process and would you do it all again?

Bess: I loved it. I’m a research nerd, and finding out some of the facts in the book just filled me with sheer joy. I wrote most of it on the tenth floor of the Seattle Public Library, in their writers’ room, which was really a wonderful space. It was right above the floor for biographies, which was well-stocked, and I would start a lot of my research with whatever seemed to be the most authoritative biography of the individual in question and then follow their sources. If I had another idea for a project that I thought I would enjoy as much, and that I thought would be successful enough that I could convince publishers to back it, I would definitely do it again. Writing a book is gruelling and exhausting and lonely, but the day it came out was one of the happiest of my life.

DP: There are some truly wonderful and bizarre characters in this book, my personal favourite being Emanuel Swedenborg and his mysterious travelling skull. Which historical figure did you enjoy writing about the most?

Bess: Swedenborg was fun, although his story is extremely complicated. I’m glad it came out as being fun to read! I also really enjoyed writing about Rasputin. Those photos of him, with those eerie pale eyes, and all the mystery and intrigue in his story. There’s what people thought was happening with him and the czarina (sex) versus what was really happening (he was healing her haemophiliac son when he wouldn’t stop bleeding, but that was kept from the public). And the myth that he was so hard to kill, when in fact more recent research suggests died from a bullet wound, not after being thrown in the river. And of course, the idea of his penis being worshipped by some Russian émigrés in Paris and then going on display in a St. Petersburg proctology clinic—I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.

DP: You definitely do not shy away from including controversial figures in this book, such as Adolf Hitler and the more recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. Did you feel it was important to include these individuals in the book and have you had any negative reactions as a result?

Bess: I think if you’re going to talk about the history of famous corpses you have to take the bad as well as the good. That doesn’t mean I approve of their actions while alive! I was just trying to get a 360-degree view of the phenomenon. And the corpses of villains, like Bin Laden or Hitler, were actually some of the most interesting to me. I was interested to see how political regimes will go to some length to make sure there’s no shrine, no place for worshippers to gather, where the flame of their memory can be kept alive. Because memory can be a political act. You have to be careful about what you let people remember.

DP: Were there any famous folk that you really wanted to include in the book but couldn’t for some reason?

Bess: I wanted to talk about Kurt Cobain, mostly because I came of age in Seattle in the 1990s, and I thought getting in a more modern rock star would be good. But most of Cobain’s story is bound up with Courtney Love’s version of things, and it’s pretty hard to fact-check.

DP: What do you hope people will get out of reading this brilliantly deathly collection of famous corpses?

Bess: Thanks for the kinds words. I hope it gives them some moments of delight, a delight mixed with a sense of wonder, or a delight that provokes a kind of curiosity. I hope it makes people realize that the way we now do death in the Western world is culturally specific—it hasn’t always been this way. And because it’s culturally specific, that means we get to choose how we want to do it, to some extent. People have more choice in these matters than they might think, particularly as society becomes more secular.

DP: Of course, your new book is not your first foray into the world of death and the macabre as you are a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon. Has your work with these two organisations helped you and your writing about what can often be a rather tricky subject area to most people?

Bess: I think so. The book came out in the US in March 2013, and I got involved in these groups while I was initially writing it. My involvement came naturally because of some of the conversations that were happening on Twitter, and it was very refreshing to find other, more-or-less young people who were having smart, fearless conversations about what it means to be mortal. That sounds heavy, but we were also having a lot of fun. And of course it was about finding other people who were delighting in the same kinds of macabre stories and facts that I was uncovering, who could appreciate them and also understand that sharing them doesn’t mean you have a mental disorder. People who understand that an interest in mortality is common and healthy, which is a message we want to convey to others.

DP: With your new book coming out, and the increase of a death positive movement seen through Death Salon, the popularity of death cafes and an increase in people simply talking more about death and dying, do you see the way in which we as a society perceive death changing in the coming years?

Bess: Definitely. At least in the US, we have a rapidly aging population, and one that is becoming more secular. We’re going to have a lot of dead people on our hands—we already do—and a society that is in many ways ill-equipped to deal with it. We lack the scripts that previous generations had to tell them how to deal with the dead and how to mourn, and so we’re making our own scripts, figuring it out as we go along. It’s just like the other changes that have happened since the social movements of the 60s and 70s; for decades now, many people have been re-thinking some fundamental ideas about things like birth, sex, family, work. Death is a part of all of that. Embalming is on its way out, natural burial is in, cremation rates are sky-high over here, cemeteries are overcrowded, and as you pointed out, people are having some real conversations about death in ways they haven’t before. But we probably need those conversations to continue spreading even more.

DP: The death community is certainly unlike any other that we’ve ever been involved with but we’ve found it to be one of support and friendship. What would you say is your favourite part of being involved in all things deathly, whether that’s through your writing or working with organisations such as Death Salon?

Bess: The community aspect is really important. And the community shares a lot of news and resources, which in turn feeds my writing and sometimes prevents me from getting too lonely. So everything works in a kind of symbiotic relationship. I think that actually my favourite part is being inspired by what other people come up with, and then seeing the impact they are having, and realizing that I’m privileged enough to know them!

DP: Having written a wonderfully successful book (I believe the US version was one of Amazon’s best books of 2013!), do you have any new and exciting projects planned?

Bess: I am working on an overly ambitious book about the state and history of death in America, and what changes in our relationship with death means. I might have bitten off more than I can chew! I really have no idea what will happen with it, but time will tell.

DP: Thank you for answering our questions and good luck with the UK release of Rest in Pieces.

Bess: Thank you!

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Thanks again to Bess for taking the time to talk to us. It was great fun and I hope you all go out and buy her book today! US folk…why haven’t you bought it already?

Book cover

Book cover

Death in Cambridge: the Arbury Lady

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

-Sylvia Plath

In 1957, Sylvia Plath wrote the poem ‘All the dead dears‘, inspired by a visit to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where she viewed the coffin and skeleton of a Roman lady exhumed locally. Due to lack of space, the Roman tomb was taken off public display in the 1980s. In 2012, the Museum had a large-scale refurbishment and restored the remains to their original setting.

The Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The face of the Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The body is of a Roman British woman from the 4th century CE, aged around 40-50, encased in a large coffin of stone lined with lead. She was found by builders working on a housing estate in Arbury, north Cambridge, in the early 1950s and has become known as the Arbury Lady.

Not only one body was found in the coffin, however. The skeletal remains of a mouse and a shrew were entombed with the lady, and there is evidence that they were gnawing on the body, especially around the ankles. The Museum have thoughtfully displayed the rodents with the Arbury Lady, preserving this fascinating detail of post-mortem activity.

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sarah-Jane Harkness, outreach officer at the Museum told the Cambridge News about how the Arbury Lady continues to inspire fascination and connects local people with their past and history

“A schoolchild was fascinated to find out the coffin had been discovered in his own street, in his neighbour’s garden. It is bringing history to them in a way they can understand – it gives it continuity.”

The Arbury Lady is displayed very respectfully in a large side-gallery away from the entrance desk and gift shop areas of the Museum, and visiting her always seems very peaceful, even during busy days. I find her very moving, and it really does feel like connecting with a real person rather than just an exhibit.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has many more fascinating and deathly items to explore, and is well worth a visit!