a. One of Van Gogh’s drawings of the vicarage. Vicarage and Church at Etten, April 1876, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). View in detail here.


1. J.A. Rozemeyer, Van Gogh in Etten, Stichting Vincent van Gogh Etten-Leur, 1990, p. 19. My translation.

2. The adverb is in poor taste, perhaps, but it’s the only one I can think of that’ll do justice to the kind of fascination it instils in me.  

3. Eleanor Cummins, “What lies beneath”, Vox.com, 30 October 2019.

4. Rozemeyer, p. 19. My translation.

5. Jean Sprackland, These Silent Mansions, A life in graveyards, London: Jonathan Cape, 2020, p. 112.

6. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, quoted in Trevor Blount, "The Graveyard Satire of Bleak House in the Context of 1850”, The Review of English Studies, vol. 14, no. 56, 1963, pp. 370-378.

7. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, quoted in Blount.

i-003. (pt. 1) ETTEN-LEUR | THE NETHERLANDS | 30/11/20 

Interlude: the bodies beneath the vicarage 

In one of the first posts for this project, I wrote about the bad summertime smells that plagued the vicarage in Etten when the Van Gogh family lived there. When the house was demolished years later, it turned out that it had been built right on top of a graveyard, and the graves hadn’t been cleared. Skeletons lay buried barely half a metre below the vicarage’s floors.1

I finished that post by stating that I would refrain from reading too much into this kind of thing. To do so would be a little tawdry, I thought, although the novelist in me adored the metaphor. I still do. And because the last months of 2020 have done precious little for my self-control, I’m going to go ahead and write about the bodies beneath the vicarage anyway.

Hey, it’s my party.

To begin with, why is this story so deliciously interesting?2 And, where to begin searching for an answer? Some half-hearted googling using a couple of search words I really don’t want my IP address associated with, brings up an article on Vox. It’s about how the practice of exhuming bodies isn’t as uncommon as you might think, and neatly sums up my fascination:

The very idea of disturbing the dead has been a source of angst and spooky entertainment for much of recorded history. True believers say the “curse of the pharaohs” is responsible for the premature deaths of several members of the team that cracked open King Tut’s tomb. In Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s troubles begin when he imbues an assortment of stolen body parts with life. And zombies serve as metaphors for infection, racism, and climate change in books, movies, and TV.3

Sums it up, but doesn’t explain it. I try to imagine it, an old house in a small village, bad smells when the weather’s warm, a source that can’t be found. The floorboards, perhaps sagging a little under the weight of boots in winter, bare feet in summer, and ‘barely half a metre’ below what in 1905 turned out to be ‘complete skeletons’.4 Do bad smells suggest decomposition? How much was left of these bodies when the Van Gogh family lived here between 1875 and 1882? I can’t but feel it doesn’t matter if there was flesh or any kind of matter on those bones. They’re still bodies. There’s a horror in imagining them beneath my floor. 

That sense of horror reminds me: fascination’s a luxury. Imagining, that’s theoretical. I live on the third and fourth floors of my building. It is 2020, a year that’s had its drawbacks, but I feel quite safe in assuming there are very, very few homes in the Netherlands where bad smells are caused by decomposing bodies. Surely we’ve arranged things better these days.

I live in a rich country. I’m white. I’m able to provide for myself. I think of Dickens, who, while not exactly disadvantaged himself, lived at a time when many people were, extremely so, and they were all around him. He wasn’t fascinated by things like this, he was outraged. Nineteenth-century London featured overcrowded graveyards in residential areas, and a booming trade in corpses. A shortage of corpses, too: ‘in a drive to raise professional standards, medical students were now required to pass a two-year course in Anatomy before they could qualify and practise as doctors’.5 Poor people who could not pay for a proper funeral often had no choice but to forfeit the bodies of their loved ones.

In Bleak House, the novel that made me move to London to study Victorian literature, Dickens describes the substandard burial of Nemo, a poor character:

the body of our dear brother here departed, [has been borne off] to a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed (…) here, they lower our dear brother down a foot or two: here, sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.6

The use of the word ‘shameful’ indicates that Dickens does not just speak of the decomposition of bodies. He speaks of moral decay. The least a society can do is take care of the dead in a respectful manner.

In 1845 The Times published an account of malpractice at Spa-Fields burial grounds. I won’t recount the grisly details, but the conclusion that must be drawn is that Dickens was quite chaste in his descriptions, even when the poor kid, Jo, recounts Nemo’s burial to Lady Dedlock: ‘They put him wery nigh the top. They was obliged to stamp upon it to git it in. I could unkiver it for you with my broom, if the gate was open.’7  

I reread what I’ve written here. ‘The least a society can do is take care of the dead in a respectful manner’, but respectful for whom? Not for the dead, I think. They won’t notice. Rather, a respectful treatment of remains is for the living, shows how a community treats its members after they’re dead. Graveyards, too, are for the living. Or, if you believe that kind of thing, for the souls of those departed, so that they may pass on.

(continued in part two)

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.