Bring up the bodies: digging up the dead in literature

You don’t need zombies or ghosts to chill the blood. Moira Redmond digs up some of literature’s most gruesome graveyard scenes

However depressing the thud of earth on the coffin-lid may be, it is music compared to the rattle of gravel and thump of spades which heralds a premature and unreverend resurrection…

That’s from Dorothy L Sayers’s 1921 Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, as she describes the gruesome exhumation of a man who may have been murdered. The corpse is carried from the grave to the cemetery potting-shed in the middle of the night, so that a doctor can explore the entrails.

Many of the creepiest encounters with corpses in books aren’t even supernatural. You don’t need anything extra to make bodies, coffins, graves and exhumations scary – but the odd ghostly touch doesn’t go amiss.

One of the most macabre is in the children’s classic Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner, when the young John Trenchard gets trapped in a church crypt with damaged coffins. He ends up lying alongside the skeleton of Colonel John “Blackbeard” Mohune, and, amid the bones and the hair – “I buckled to the distasteful work of rummaging the coffin” – finds a valuable locket with clues to a lost treasure.

Dennis Wheatley may never make it onto lists of our greatest authors, but his black magic novels were rattling good yarns. The Ka of Gifford Hillary has the thrilling and absurd concept of a spirit (the ka) being released from a body. The eponymous Hillary seems to be dead but isn’t, and along with his other busybody activities, he is anxious that he can get back to his buried body and get the body out of the grave to rise again.

For sheer grisliness, it’s hard to beat La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, the source for Verdi’s opera La Traviata. Unable to return quickly enough to see Marguerite before she dies (unlike later versions of the story), hero Armand has her corpse dug up. He wants one last look, but she is “terrible to behold… the eyes were simply two holes, the lips had gone, and the white teeth were clenched.”

Thomas Hardy attempts to shield us from anatomical horror during a terrifying and almost hallucinatory sequence in Far from the Madding Crowd, in which Bathsheba creeps around at night to open the coffin of Fanny Robbin. She finds, as she has dreaded, that there is a dead baby in there too – so she now knows the truth about Fanny and her husband, Sergeant Troy. “It was best to know the worst, and I know it now,” she says. After shaking our bones with this scary scene, Hardy assures us “the youth and fairness of both the silent ones withdrew from the scene all associations of a repulsive kind”.

In some instances, exhumation becomes a symptom of putrefaction in the body politic. In Andrew Miller’s 2011 historical novel, Pure, set just before the French Revolution, the young hero is charged with moving hundreds of long-dead bodies out of the centre of Paris. Many are plague victims and the whole area has become toxic. It’s a giant metaphor for the ancien régime, but there is also a lot of detail about the logistics and dangers of moving so many bodies.

Albania’s greatest writer, Ismail Kadare, also wrote about unearthing bodies for a living, in his wonderfully-titled novel General of the Dead Army. The titular general is an Italian who has come “to search for the remains of his country’s soldiers killed in various parts of Albania during the [second] world war and supervise their repatriation.” A meeting with a German doing the same job leads him to question the value of the exercise.

In life as in fiction: the body of Eva Peron, the Argentine leader’s wife, suffered a most strange fate after she died in 1952: disappearing until being rediscovered in Europe in 1976. Gregory Widen wrote a 2013 thriller, Blood Makes Noise, on the topic and (as in the best acknowledgements) says all the most unlikely parts are true. The body is now safely back in Argentina and buried, according to Sir Tim Rice, with the Spanish version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” on the tombstone.

From Dorothy L Sayers onwards, official exhumation of bodies turns up most often in murder stories: “The body contains more than sufficient arsenic” is a classic Agatha Christie line, from The Labours of Hercules. But coffins sometimes contain surprises – as when Harry Lime is dug up in Graham Greene’s postwar novella The Third Man. The exhumation takes place offstage in the novel, in view in the film – and the body doesn’t belong Harry.

But one of my favourite stories of bodies rising from graves isn’t macabre at all. It comes from James Thurber’s satire, Bateman Comes Home, which he said was written after reading too many southern gothic novels:

Old Nate Birge… was chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.

If you know where more bodies are buried, let us know in the comment thread below.


Moira Redmond

The GuardianTramp

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