Monday, January 17, 2011

In 1938 Byron's tomb was opened...

It’s 1938. A hundred and fourteen years since Lord Byron’s death. A handful of people enter the Byron family vault beneath the small parish church in Hucknall. The vault has been sealed up for over a century. The vault is now being opened for archaeological reasons. But curiosity was bound to get the better of the visitors. Eleven steps led down into the burial chamber. A miner’s lamp was used to light the vault. Coffins were stacked one on the top of the other in piles. The weight of those on top had crushed those below. Bones spilled out onto the floor. Only the top two in each pile were in tact. One was Byron’s, the other his daughter’s who, like Byron, died at the age of 37. It was apparent the tombs had been vandalised. Probably when Ada, Byron’s daughter, was laid to rest. Byron’s coronet still rested on the coffin but its pearls and silver orbs were missing. It was also evident that the lid was loose. As one of the party moved closer, the lid moved. It wasn’t until half past ten at night that the party finally agreed to open up the coffin, an act they were not authorised to do. The outer coffin lid was removed, followed by the inner lead shell which, they saw, had been cut into. Inside the layer of lead was the wooden coffin containing Byron’s body. This lid was opened and there was Byron = recognisable from his portraits, his embalmed body still in an excellent state of preservation.

  I immediately thought of Damien Hirst. Next project, wheel out the corpse of Byron. I can think of few things which would excite as much wonder in me as beholding Byron face to face. That’s what I would call a memorable experience. Would it be tasteless to put him on show? But surely as a culture we’ve already made great inroads into the realms of bad taste. We must have reached about Level Nine by now. What harm would a little more bad taste do?  There’s also the strong suspicion Byron would have warmed to the idea (as long as his lame foot was covered). Imagine if there was a museum where you could look at the preserved cadavers of the likes of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven. Who wouldn’t pay to go in there? And, like Damien Hirst suggests, we should probably be looking at death a bit more. 


  1. yes, death is a grand if sometimes overproud creature much deserving of a supercilious sneer or two.

    those skull chapels they have (i've seen them in faro and in milano) where the priests used the skulls and bones of their fallen comrades to stucco the walls.

    and in the monza duomo there is a monk dead behind a door which is always shown with great relish.

    and that günter von hagen, now, the plastinator... hirst's got nothing on him.

    but then you mean celebrity corpses, right? true, that's a different game. more like medieval saints' relics for the modern age.

  2. Would involve breaking a colossal taboo and signify a tectonic shift in ethics were people to stare at the preserved corpses of dead celebrities. But you can imagine it, can't you? We're not that far away from the scenario.