Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Mortsafes, morthouses, and resurrection men

There's a certain strain of Scottish Gothic that's full of body-snatchers, crooked surgeons, and cadavers transported in carriages; hangings, murders, dissections.  Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher includes a ghost as well as a real corpse (or does it?); in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Hyde's mysterious door is in fact the entrance to Jekyll's dissecting room, and the whole novel can be seen as an oblique comment on the case of surgeon Robert Knox, the man who paid Burke and Hare for cadavers for dissection.

(Burke and Hare were smart businessmen. There was a high demand for fresh corpses for the anatomy school; other men dug up bodies from the graveyards, but these two live wires cut out the middleman and made their own corpses.)

Various devices were invented to prevent the 'resurrection men' from snatching the bodies of the recently deceased. Several graveyards have watch houses or watchtowers: there's a fine circular watchtower in the kirkyard at Banchory, in Deeside, like a castle among the graves.

But guards could be threatened or overpowered. The mortsafe afforded greater protection. At first, the simple expedient of laying a huge slab of stone over the grave was used, but the mortsafe - a sort of iron grid - provided lateral protection as well as a huge weight on top of the coffin. Once the body had started to decay, the mortsafe could be moved and laid on top of the next burial, whenever that occurred. (There are the remains of a couple of mortsafes in the cloister garth of St Conan's, Loch Awe, that provided the impulse for this post.)

And then there are morthouses. Again, the idea was to keep coffins protected till the body inside was well rotted; many are huge sheds of solid stone, with stone vaults and slate roofs, and huge barred doors. But as with the watch tower at Banchory, form, function, and the desire for an architecturally pleasing construction occasionally created works of impressive character; there's a  wonderful circular morthouse at Udny Green built with a turntable inside, so that coffins would be rotated till at last they came to the entrance again, and could be buried, the body inside having achieved a state that made it no longer of any interest to the resurrection men.

There's something rather more than usually morbid about these relics of the bodysnatching past. (The Anatomy Act of 1832 put paid to the bodysnatchers for good, by allowing surgeons to dissect unclaimed bodies, and allowing relatives to donate their next of kin's body to science, thus creating a regular supply of cadavers for the medical schools.) All graveyards are a little morbid, even the cenotaphs of Hindu rulers in Rajasthan where there never was a body - they simply commemorate the site of a cremation. But these mortsafes and morthouses remind us more strongly than usual of the facts of death - the fact of putrefaction, of the slow falling apart of the body - and so they exacerbate the usual macabre nature of the place.

Yet we enjoy such gruesomeness. As Dickens's Fat Boy says, "I wants to make your flesh creep" - and the telling of ghost stories has been a pleasurable activity at least since his time (he wrote some good ones), and in fact since Shakespeare's (Mamillius in The Winter's Tale starts a story "Of sprites and goblins" with the line "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard", which was completed in a nice little jeux d'esprit by MR James). And I don't think we're going to stop enjoying it any time soon - certainly not judging by the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.



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