“The Bur[y]ing-Ground in Oxford-Road, belonging to the Parish of St. George’s Hanover-Square, having been lately robbed of several dead Bodies, a Watch was placed there attended by a large Mastiff Dog, notwithstanding which, on Sunday Night last some Villains found Means to steal out another dead Body, and carried off the very Dog.”
Less than four months later, on March 18, 1768, the re-animator of Hamlet’s Yorick, Laurence Sterne, died in London. As Arthur H. Cash reports in Laurence Sterne: The Later Years (1986), the obituary published the following day in the same St. James’s Chronicle was “insensitive and unworthy of its subject”: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, a Fellow of Infinite Jest, most excellent Fancy, &c. Wit, Humour, Genius, hadst thou, all agree; One Grain of Wisdom had been worth the Three!” Sterne was buried March 22 in the dog-free graveyard at St. George’s. His funeral cost 16s. 6d. – “a modest celebration,” Cash says, “but suitable to his status as a clergyman and writer.”
Sterne’s body was stolen from his grave, probably during the night after his burial and probably by medical students or their sub-contractors in disinterment. Rumors flourished but the first mention of the theft in print didn’t appear until March 24, 1769, in the Public Advertiser. A source said he was “well assured of the Identify of his Skull by two or three of the Teeth being remarkably prominent, which were well remembered by those who knew the Deceased.” Subsequent reports confirmed that Sterne’s corpse was delivered to the anatomy amphitheater at Cambridge. Dr. Charles Collignon, once he realized he was about to dissect the remains of the author of Tristram Shandy, sent the body back for reburial, though Cash is more understanding than some: “Sterne, who was always interested in medicine and had attended the autopsy of George Oswald, would not have objected.”
The grim Sternean comedy doesn’t end there. For a year, his grave remained unmarked, until two Freemasons erected what Cash calls a “laughable headstone,” and probably on the wrong grave: “`Alas! Poor Yorick’ / Near to this Place / Lyes the Body of / The Reverend Laurence Sterne, A.M.” They got the date of death and Sterne’s age wrong, not to mention his general temperament: “This monumental Stone was erected to the memory of the deceased, by two Brother Masons; for although he did not live to be a Member of their Society, yet all his incomparable Performances evidently prove him to have acted by Rule and Square.” Sterne, one suspects, would have reveled in every detail of this post-mortem comedy.
Tristram Shandy is the funniest and most death-haunted of novels, a book that makes me happy just to see it on the shelf. How pleased I was when reading Storm of Steel, Ernst Jünger’s memoir of trench warfare during World War I (trans. Michael Hoffman, 2003), to come upon this passage from late in the war:
“I let my three platoons string out in file across the terrain, with circling aeroplanes bombing and strafing overhead. When we reached our objective, we dispersed into shell-holes and dug-outs, as occasional shells came lobbing over the road. I felt so bad that day that I lay down in a little piece of trench and fell asleep right away. When I woke up, I read a few pages of Tristram Shandy, which I had with me in my map case, and so apathetically, like an invalid, I spent the sunny afternoon."
I’ve never experienced combat but understand the solace Jünger finds in a book, even in the middle of Hell. Since starting Anecdotal Evidence nine years ago today, on Feb. 5, 2006, the intersection of books and life has been repaved, sidewalks and traffic signals have been put in, and most of the potholes patched. It's a good neighborhood for families with children. The books we read and read again constitute the truest, least banal of autobiographies. Tristram writes in Volume IX, Chapter 4:
“I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more -- every thing presses on -- whilst thou are twisting that lock, -- see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make –”