A couple of years ago I did some research into Highgate Cemetery for a novel I was writing. I was fascinated by the story of Lizzie Siddal, wife of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose body was exhumed seven years after her death. Here’s a fictional account of the exhumation for you to enjoy in these dark winter nights. The narrator is a young grave digger, Will Bucket, telling the story a year later in 1870. Enjoy and sleep tight!
Now I don’t mind burying ‘em – it’s what I does for a living an’ all and, like I says, the work’s regular so you just get on wiv it and don’t make a fuss. But sometimes you get asked to dig ‘em up and that don’t half give me the willies. We had one last year what caused a right old palaver. In fact, she were one o’ the first I buried when I come here as a young ‘prentice and there we were, seven years later, digging her up again. It were enough to make all the other bodies turn in their graves.
Lizzie her name was. Lizzie Siddal. I heard from Josiah Heap, the senior grave digger, that she were only ‘bout thirty or so when she died. She’d copped it from an overdose of laudanum. Now, I ain’t one to judge, but I heard too she was married to some fella who was a painter and a poet wiv some fancy name – Rossetti (I ask you) – and it struck me at the time that a young missus like her (I’d heard she used to work in a hat shop) would’ve bin better off wiv a nice young cobbler or butcher or baker. What did she want to go running off wiv a poet for? From what I’ve heard they’re all a bit queer in the head. No wonder she went a bit loopy, poor thing.
So anyway, there she was, dead as a doornail and sealed up in her coffin. We buried her in the Rossetti family tomb and I thought no more ‘bout it.
But last year, seven years after we put her under, we gets a special request. It turns out this poet’s got an agent (scoundrel if you ask me) by the name of Charles Howell and this agent fella wants us to dig her up ‘cause the poet (sentimental old git) only went and put a copy of his poems into her coffin before it was sealed and now he wants ‘em back. Did he think she was gonna read ‘em or what? I tell you, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
‘Course, we couldn’t go digging her up in the middle of the day. We have burials here all the time and lots of people come to pay their respects to their relatives. They wouldn’t have been none too happy if they’d seen us digging her up when they’d come to spend a few quiet moments admiring the family memorial (some people gets a bit competitive over the size of their urns or the gracefulness of their angels, but that’s another story.) No, we have to dig her up at night when the cemetery is closed and all God fearing people are at home in their beds.
So there we are, in the dark. We have to light a bonfire to see by. Mr Hills, the cemetery superintendent is there with the agent, Mr Howell. Her husband, the poet, don’t show up. Just as well otherwise I might not ‘ave been able to stop meself from telling him to go and get a proper job. Josiah Heap is there to oversee the digging but me and Big Bert have to do all the hard work.
We work around the slab wiv a crowbar each so we can lever it up and lift it out. It’s slow work and hard to see properly in the dark – the bonfire don’t give off that much light. After about an hour we’ve loosened the slab and we slides it out to reveal the grave. It’s deep ‘cause they’re planning to bury a whole load of Rossettis in it eventually. Big Bert and me jump down into the hole and start shovelling earth off the top of the coffin. Lucky she was the last person to be buried in here so she’s on the top of the pile, even if she’s still ‘bout eight feet down.
When we’ve cleared the earth off the coffin Josiah Heap throws down some ropes which we ties to the handles. Then we climbs back out using a ladder and we helps Josiah Heap and Mr Hills pull the coffin up by the ropes. It’s heavy and I nearly loses me footing at one point on the muddy ground. “Whoa,” I shouts. Everyone stops pulling ‘cause no one wants anyone to fall in. “All right lad?” asks Josiah Heap. “Right as rain,” I says and we carries on. I’ve never known Josiah Heap be so concerned. Maybe he don’t like this neither.
So we gets the coffin out and lays it down on the ground. Now this agent chap is so excited he can’t control himself and he shouts, “Lift the lid! Lift the lid!” It’s like he’s got some kinda urge to look at dead bodies. He gives me the willies, for sure.
Big Bert and me work around the coffin lid, unscrewing all the screws and putting each one carefully in our pockets ‘cause we’ve gotta put ‘em all back again when we’ve finished.
When we’ve got all the screws out we stands back. I know Big Bert’s thinking the same as me – we don’t want to be the ones who lift the lid. Mr Hills steps in and takes charge which is the only useful thing he’s done so far. The agent is hopping around like he’s ‘bout to burst. We ignores him as best we can.
“Will and Bert, you take the bottom of the lid,” says Mr Hills, “and Josiah and I will lift the top.” In the light of the bonfire I sees Mr Hills looks a bit queasy which ain’t surprising.
We lifts the lid and, despite meself, I can’t help looking inside the coffin. I’m curious. What does a seven year old dead body look like?
Like an angel.
She’s beautiful. She’s lying there wiv her hands crossed over her chest and this amazing long red hair flowing all around her like silk.
The agent dives in and starts rummaging around in her hair. I want to tell him to stop but me tongue is glued to the roof of me mouth.
The agent jumps up clutching something in his hand. “Got it.” It’s the book of poems. He stuffs it inside his coat pocket grinning like he’s just found the crown jewels.
“Right, lets get the lid back on,” says Mr Hills.
I takes one last look at this angel before the lid goes back on and me and Big Bert start putting all the screws back.
“Rest in peace,” I says to her, but real quiet, like, so no one else can hear.