A few years ago, my charming husband made a particularly unsporting request about the disposal of his earthly remains; for when the time comes. (He’s not yet 40, so we can argue about it for a while yet.) His favourite place in the world is a game farm in the Lowveld over the Olifants (Elephant) River and hot, hot, hot, upon which his parents have a house. He spent his formative, boyhood years on the farm and while being quite sensible and practical in his daily life, becomes quite poetic when speaking about the bush. From the high point on the farm, the hardy and much-abused (by wildlife and climate) trees stretch all the way to the Lebombo Mountains of Mozambique. It is home to the Big 5. The night skies are spectacular; I cannot exaggerate their beauty. You fall asleep to the whoops of hyenas * and the orgasmic call of the tiny pearl-spotted owl *; and for those who have never heard a lion’s roar close-by *, your chest actually vibrates along with it. You’re woken at dawn by the very screech-y, shout-y francolins. If you nap in the afternoon, you’ll wake up glowing (My fairy godmother told me that ladies do not sweat). It’s a good spot. Idyllic.
*If you click on the links, you can listen to the sounds of Africa. Please do; I spent hours (or at least 45 minutes) trying to find the right sounds clips. A good lion roar is not easy to stumble upon.
What my husband would have me do in this good spot, is actually a crime. I am to drive his body, immediately post-mortem (before he get smelly, you see), the 550kms from Johannesburg to N’tsiri. I’m to prop him up in the front seat, put his seat-belt on and head off cross-country; with or without weeping relicts and family along for the ride. We haven’t decided yet.
Now, if this thought is not awful enough, he then wants me to dump his body in the bush. No grave. No grave marker. Just a body in the bush, to be returned to the African earth by hungry hyenas, lions, jackals, birds and beetles. I think all of this a very bad idea. His is the body I love. He is not a buffet.
As I said, my husband is, under normal circumstances, a perfectly ordinary and sensible man. A man who was anything but ordinary, but who also had peculiar ideas about what to do with bodies after death was Martin Van Butchell (1735-1814).
It was not his body’s final resting place that he worried over however, it was that of his wife Mary’s (or Maria). He was buried in the parish church of St George Hanover Square in 1814. When his wife died in 1775, he embalmed her (and her green parrot), dressed her in her wedding dress, and put her (with the parrot at her feet) on display in a glass case in his parlour.
Martin was born into relative comfort in 1735 in London and was raised in Surrey. His father was King George II’s tapestry artist. He did all the things that a well-born young man of his time would do: he studied French, he went on a Grand Tour. Martin even met the king on a hunt in Windsor Forest. He studied medicine, learning anatomy from the eminent Dr Hunter, but took a particular interest in dentistry after having to treat one of his own teeth. He earned a reputation as one of London’s best dentists, with a good address and devoted to his craft.
So far, so good.
It was when he married and lived away from his father’s ‘Crown House’ that his peculiarities came to the fore. Today, he would probably be classified as schizophrenic or bi-polar; both disorders manifesting in the late teenage years and early twenties. In his time, as he was wealthy and productive, his eccentricity was tolerated as such, rather than as mental illness.
He would travel the streets of London with a bone of a Tahitian man in his hand, attached to his wrist by string. He never shaved or trimmed his beard and took to publishing strange, effusive pamphlets about beard-growth.
He wore the same top hat for years. In the end it was a washed-out, almost-white, having been originally black. He didn’t buy new shoes either. I particularly love that he rode around town on his small white pony painted with either purple spots, swirls or stripes. He always dined alone and he encouraged his wife and children to do the same. He called his children by whistling for them. Always. He never used their names. And while the medical fraternity distanced themselves from this very eccentric character, his technique was sound and his patients loved him. He also became a specialist in treating anal fistulas and eminent as a “maker of trusses for ruptured persons”.
Maria Van Butchell stood, leathery, in the parlour until her husband’s death in 1814. Their son donated the body to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it went on display in the Hunterian Collection. (Another source claims that Martin’s new wife, Elizabeth, ordered it removed before then.) An observer in 1857 noted the sad condition of this “once lovely woman”
…it now appears with its shrunken and rotten-looking bust, its hideous mahogany-coloured face, and its remarkably fine set of teeth.
~From Catherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead
Maria’s earthly remains were finally turned to dust when the mummy was destroyed in an air raid on London in 1941. Her remains had been on display for 166 years! Now, if my charming husband had his way, his body would only last a day or two out in the bush and we would have some spectacular game viewing. Perhaps it’s not the worst idea after all.
If you want to see quite how ordinary a husband my charming husband is apart from his rather extraordinary last wish (I feel some remorse for grouping him with crazy Van Bletcher!), he blogs about the bush, wildlife, our children, and his novel. This post had me crying with laughter.