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.

b. Headstone of Vincent Willem van Gogh, taken from “Cemetery, Zundert, the Netherlands”, Van Gogh Route.  

c. Graves of Vincent and Theo van Gogh, taken from “Cemetery, Auvers-sur-Oise, France”, Van Gogh Route. 


8. Lee Jackson, "Death in the city: the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian London's dead", the Guardian, 22 January 2015.

9. Quoted in Jean Sprackland, These Silent Mansions, A life in graveyards, London: Jonathan Cape, 2020, p. 35.

10. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, quoted in Bridget Gellert, "The Iconography of Melancholy in the Graveyard Scene of Hamlet", Studies in Philology, vol. 67, no. 1, 1970, pp. 57-66. 

11. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, London: Profile Books, 2011-2012, p. 23.  

i-003. (pt. 2) ETTEN-LEUR | THE NETHERLANDS | 8/12/20 

Interlude: the bodies beneath the vicarage 

(continuation of part one) 

Someone who keeps getting mentioned in the articles I consult is George Alfred Walker. He was a nineteenth-century surgeon who wrote extensively about the poor practices in burial grounds, and especially the effects of overcrowded graveyards on neighbouring populations:

His favourite example of malpractice was Enon Chapel, situated in slums north of the Strand. This dubious place of worship, established in the 1820s largely as a burial speculation, contained a modest cellar in which the deceased were laid to rest in their thousands (ie. corpses were regularly surreptitiously cleared away). Mangled coffins in the chapel vaults produced unclassifiable “body bugs”, which sprang from the corpses and lurked in hair and clothing. Worshippers reported foul aromas and “a peculiar taste” during services, praising the Lord with a handkerchief pressed to their nostrils. Some redundant remains were dumped in a sewer that ran directly under the building.8

Fascination is, again, a luxury. In the nineteenth century, these were actual bodies, the remains of real people, their smell. There was a fear of contagion prevalent during those times, ‘miasma’, the fear that corpses might exude some kind of bad air that would infect the living. Dickens’ dichotomy between ‘civilisation and barbarism’ does not only serve as an uncomfortable reminder of colonialism, but also of the ‘us versus them’ narrative that defines the vocabulary of some politicians around the world.

Fear can reveal the worst of people. And afford insight. Does fear of the unknown, the other, provide an explanation for my interest in the bodies beneath the vicarage? ‘Corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live,’ writes Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror.9 Corpses remind me of my own mortality, my own death, my material body, myself. ‘How long hast thou been a grave-maker?’ Hamlet asks of the first clown in the famous graveyard scene.

First clown: Of all the days i' th' year, I came to't that day our last King Hamlet o’ercame Fortinbras.

Hamlet: How long is that since?

First clown: Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that. It was that very day that young Hamlet was born (…) I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.10

Hamlet’s birth coincides with the start of the clown’s career as a gravedigger. Death is present as soon as life begins.

And here I am, back where I started, with Vincent Willem van Gogh, who was stillborn on 30 March, 1852. Exactly a year later - yes, exactly, on 30 March, 1853 - Vincent Willem van Gogh was born, named again after both grandfathers, and lived, and became the painter who died at a tender age. There is a grave in Zundert, where both Vincents were born, and the headstone pleads ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’.11 Much has been made of this, and I think that is right, even though it was a rule then to name the eldest son after his grandfathers. Imagine sharing the name of a sibling who was born first, the eldest. A child who was supposed to live. And ‘our’ Vincent van Gogh was difficult, and argued with his parents, who cursed him now and then, disapproved of him very early on, and lamented his difficult behaviour. Imagine being the wrong one simply by being born, before you’d had the chance to make mistakes of your own.

Is this the moral decay Dickens wrote about? Accounts of how the Van Goghs treated their eldest son and sibling smack of hypocrisy. A vicar and his upstanding family, respectable citizens, Christians, yet only Theo was at his brother’s funeral. They’d all turned their backs on him. Modern portrayals of Van Gogh’s story often cast the man as a victim, a misunderstood genius. Of course he was. But read the letters, his own words, and it’s clear that Van Gogh was also bloody difficult and, quite frankly, a nightmare to live with. Raising children is always easy when others are doing it. And losing a child is, I hear and read and imagine, one of the worst things that can happen to a person. I can judge how the second Vincent Willem was treated by his parents, but perhaps I have no right to.

A house built on decomposition. Bodies beneath the vicarage. Perhaps it’s just that death isn’t supposed to come so close to the living. And yet, of course, death’s unavoidably a part of life, not just its ending. But when the bodies of people who died are treated with whatever custom or ritual that my culture calls respectful, it confers the sense that their lives mattered, and deserve respect after they’ve ended and that, so by extension, does mine. Because no matter how or when I die, I do not want my body to rot beneath someone else’s floor. I do not want ‘me’ to be no more than a bad smell.

Van Gogh at least did not end up like that. He was buried in Auvers-sur-Oise, on the outskirts of Paris, where I’ll go at the end of this project, when travelling’s possible again. There’s a proper grave there, next to that of his brother Theo. ‘Ici repose’ it simply says. Here rests.

Comments? Questions? Do drop me a line: 
︎ @eightytoninety
︎ eightytoninety

© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.