Corpses of Interest

If you’re a Shakespeare enthusiast, or ardent follower of global parking lot news, you’re aware that archaeologists recently discovered King Richard III’s earthly remains under a parking lot in Leicester. Presumably King Richard (or “Humpback Dicky,” as his friends called him) parked his car at a mall, couldn’t again locate it, and eventually got buried beneath the asphalt on location.

This week, in celebration of the longest hide-and-seek game in British history, I’ll be detailing other interesting corpses. It may interest you to learn that King Richard III is not the first famous Briton to be buried beneath a parking lot. Edinburgh is the final resting place of John Knox, the founder of the Church of Scotland (what is the Presbyterian Church in America). The fiery preacher is buried under slot No. 23 in the parking lot behind St. Giles Cathedral. In his case, the Scots have known all along.

A brief bio on John Knox: born in Scotland, he moved to Europe for a few years to serve as an armed body guard for a Protestant muckraker down there. He later returned to Scotland where he more or less single-handedly converted Scotland from a nation of noisy violent Catholics to a nation of violent Protestants who quit drinking for six years.

If you visit St. Andrew’s, for instance, the Cathedral is a pile of ruins next to a golf course, because John Knox’s followers burned it down for being “too Catholic.” Among other things he also called Mary Queen of Scots “the whore of Babylon” to her face. He is so revered that when students at St. Andrew’s graduate, the ceremony includes tapping them on the head with a hat made out of John Knox’s breeches.

Before Knox died he said that he wanted to be buried within twenty feet of St. Giles, the national Cathedral of Scotland (the loose equivalent of Westminster Abbey–Sean Connery was knighted there).

Here it’s worth noting that old Britannic cemeteries tend to grow over the centuries. Particularly the Scots, who are by nature thrifty and efficient people. Whenever a plague came through, the Scots would unearth older coffins, and pile in dead bodies like firewood. When they ran out of coffins to buddy up with, they’d just put down layer after layer of corpses and a fresh foot of dirt. Then, when another plague came through, they’d slather on another stack of bodies and another blanket of dirt.

If you’ve ever noticed that most cemeteries in Britain are on hills, this is why–they didn’t start out on hills. Rather, they are literally mounds of hundreds and hundreds of corpses, so much so that the local topography has altered. 

One small problem with this highly compact method of disposing of bodies is that, with a thick layer of dead bodies deposited every few years, you eventually reach a “corpse saturation point.” So when a big rain comes through (in Scotland, roughly every two to four hours) arms will start poking up out of the ground. Not only is this unhygienic, it is also distasteful and bad for tourism.

So in the case of the St. Gile’s cemetery, people started getting irritated with the amount of limbs popping up in between the national cathedral and then-parliament building. They relocated the bodies to other cemeteries nearby (sort of suburban graveyards), but, wishing to honor John Knox’s request, left his body behind. When they eventually paved over the former graveyard to put in a parking lot, they left a yellow square above his body to signify the location. When I lived in Scotland there was usually a blue van parked on top of John Knox, but if you bent over you could still see the marker.

I have since wondered: why didn’t they erect a statue, or placard, or animatronic John Knox to throw things at passing papists? My only explanation is that the Scots (again, a thrifty people) calculated that they would lose an entire car space worth of parking revenue annually, and so opted for the most cost effective option.

In the next we meet Lord Nelson, whose body was transported to London in a barrel of brandy.

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