Beware the Curse on Shakespeare’s Grave 0

William Shakespeare grave with curse

Of all the possible ghosts to be haunted by, William Shakespeare would have to be one of the worst. With an epic collection of ye-olde insults (Shakespeare pioneered ‘your mum’ jokes, by the way) and an aptitude for lengthy monologues, the Bard would definitely find a way to make you very, very sorry. 

It’s perhaps for that very reason that scientists examining William Shakespeare’s grave in 2016 were very careful not to disturb his rest. After all, the Shakespeare grave curse is perhaps the most famous in the world. It’s even written on the Bard’s tombstone, to really spell things out for would-be plunderers.

And yet … it seems someone has ignored it.

 

What is written on Shakespeare’s grave?

A quatrain made up of iambic tetrameter couplets, the curse on Shakespeare’s grave is as follows:

“Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Brrr! Spooky. But not actually that unusual.

In Shakespeare’s day, it wasn’t uncommon for graves to be dug up and the bones moved to make room for new burials. Perhaps concerned about starring in a re-enactment of the ‘Yorick’ scene from Hamlet, Shakespeare (as the story goes) penned the verse above to prevent anyone from disturbing his rest.

And up until 2016, it seemed as though the curse had done its job. Keen to respect Shakespeare’s wishes themselves, the scientists even used radar technology to take a gander at his grave, leaving his bones untouched. 

But they made a shocking discovery: Shakespeare’s skull was apparently missing.

 

Who risked William Shakespeare’s grave curse?

We say ‘shocking’ ⁠— but there have been rumours about someone plundering the Bard’s grave over the years. 

So, who was it? A story in Argosy magazine from 1879 may have the answer. The rambling account from ‘A Warwickshire Man’ lays the crime at the door of a young doctor named Frank Chambers. “A wild, rather dashing young fellow,” Chambers supposedly stole the skull with three accomplices in 1794. 

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a lot of body snatching. The heads of famous thinkers were of particular interest to scientific minds of the day. But it seems Shakespeare’s skull was too hot to sell. Unable to find a buyer, Chambers attempted to return it, only to have the skull spirited away by a lackey. 

The account ends with the fate of Shakespeare’s skull unknown. 

 

Where is Shakespeare’s skull now?

It’s still a mystery. Rev. Patrick Taylor of Holy Trinity told reporters that he was “not convinced” that the skull had actually been taken in the first place. And it’s true that the 2016 scan of Shakespeare’s grave wasn’t entirely conclusive. 

Without actually digging Shakespeare up, we’ll never know for certain — but would you risk the curse?

 

Shakespeare’s grave location

If you’d like to visit the grave of William Shakespeare, it can be found in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Entrance is free, but do check the church’s opening times before you go.

Photo credit: Image of Shakespeare’s grave taken by David Jones and used under Creative Commons licence 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
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Death Euphemisms: Why do we have so many? 0

death euphemisms

English is known for being a rich language that boasts an incredibly large vocabulary and contains countless synonyms. It’s also true that, over the years, we’ve developed a greater number of euphemisms for certain subject matters, topics or individual words. A euphemism is typically used to avoid offending or upsetting someone, or to avoid talking directly about an uncomfortable topic. A euphemism is then a milder version of the intended word, ‘downsizing’ meaning ‘cuts,’ or ‘let go’ meaning ‘fired.’

 

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the fascinating range of words and phrases the English language employs euphemistically for death and dying. Here we take a look at a few examples and contexts in which we use death euphemisms, and also discuss why people are always searching for new and glossier ways to talk about death.

 death euphemisms

In Formal Language

There are an incredible number of euphemisms for death that are used in formal situations, like at a funeral, in obituaries, polite conversation and among strangers. These can include passed away, deceased, departed, sleeping, slipped away, resting in peace, at rest, lost one’s life and taken one’s last breath. These turns of phrase allow us to avoid confronting the act of dying directly and are usually employed when we’re talking to someone who may have been affected by the death, or to a stranger.

 

In Colloquial Language

When it comes to informal language and slang in particular, there’s a huge variety of terms to choose from. Whether they’re used to soften the impact of a death, such as being six feet under, pegging out, meeting one’s maker, going to a better place and giving up the ghost, or to take a more direct approach, such as being curtains, taking a dirt nap or kicking the bucket, slang is responsible for a great number of euphemistic synonyms.

 

In Journalistic Language

As journalists are forced to write about death and dying on a regular basis, they’ve developed a number of euphemisms to help them talk about the issue. Some, like KIA (Killed In Action), are acronyms and technical terms employed by important organisations. Others are simply more formal or literary ways of conveying the information that someone has died. For instance, journalists may talk about a bereavement, an untimely demise, a personal loss or, simply, an end.

 

In Black Humour

Just as some people want to avoid tackling the issue of death and prefer to use euphemisms to skirt around the subject, others prefer to employ euphemisms in a humorous way and often use black humour to refer to death in a direct manner. Good examples of this type of euphemism might include being food for worms, pushing up daisies, popping one’s clogs or coming to a sticky end.

 

Different ways of dying

Finally, there are a variety of synonyms for death that are only used in certain contexts, situations or types of deaths. For instance, if someone is murdered, they may be sleeping with the fishes or wearing concrete shoes. If the person drowned, they may have gone to a watery grave. Similarly, if someone commits suicide they could have topped themselves, taken their own life or ended it all.

 

Why so many?

Although there’s no single answer to the question of why we have so many words and phrases for death and the process of dying, a number of factors may have contributed to their development. Perhaps most simply, the verb to die is useful but completely without nuance – it doesn’t provide us with any information apart from the fact that someone is no longer living.

 

Many of the euphemisms listed above provide us with a little more detail about what may have occurred or the relationship between the speaker and the deceased. It’s also worth noting that culturally we still have issues with talking about death openly and honestly – a fact that may go a long way to explaining why we’ve created so many new terms for the process. Finally, the idea that death makes us uncomfortable personally, and that we don’t like to talk about it for selfish reasons, could be a powerful factor driving our desire to speak e

The Poetry of Remembrance: Pablo Neruda & Brian Patten 0

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda, born on this day in 1904, is internationally recognised by many readers for his profound and diverse poetry. The subject matter of his work is extensive, ranging from lyrical celebrations of his native Chile to more sombre versifications on love, mortality and the ultimate transience of the human experience. Perhaps more significant, though, is Neruda’s recurrent emphasis on the importance of memory and time in shaping our response to events which, inevitably, will affect all of us at some point in our lives.

Pablo Neruda

 

Suffering bereavement is, unfortunately, one such event that will be experienced by each and every one of us. However, as celebrations of lives well-lived continue to demonstrate, it is in no small part through the act of remembrance that we can begin to reconcile with our grief and move forward beyond the absences left by the loss of our loved ones.

 

Although often overlooked in the everyday life of many people, poetry often acts as a spiritual balm for families during their most fragile moments. Even if we are not regular readers of poetry ourselves, it is often the case that the linguistic deployment of certain phrases, words and images can help us in giving positive expression to the heartfelt pain and emotion brought about by death. By reading poetry, we feel less isolated; we become connected to a universality of feeling that is usually contained in the private thoughts of others. Thinking about how someone else has dealt with their grief can bring a particular reprieve to our own personal hardships, and it is for this reason that poetry often plays a central role in the funeral service.

 

The process of grieving undoubtedly brings about contemplations of our own mortality, but such thoughts need not lead us further into despair. Indeed, in Neruda’s poem And How Long? the poet uses the motif of time to propose a string of probing questions that seek to force a reconsideration of traditionally accepted perspectives on life and death:

 

How long does a man live after all?

Does he live a thousand days, or only one?

A week, or several centuries?

How long does a man spend dying?

What does it mean to say ‘for ever’?

 

If Neruda’s questions provoke deeper thinking about life, loss, memory and time, then poet Brian Patten’s work, So many different lengths of time, provides us with a simple and heartfelt answer to these questions. By opening his poem with the above verse by Neruda, Patten establishes an immediate thematic link to the Chilean poet, but goes beyond the Chilean poet by seeking to overcome the looming finality of death. Patten’s poem argues that it is the act of remembrance which offers family members the best antidote to the anguish of loss. In tackling the subject of grief, Patten views poetry as performing an important social function: ‘Poetry helps us understand what we’ve forgotten to remember. It reminds us of things that are important to us when the world overtakes us emotionally.’

 

If Neruda asks, ‘How long does a man live after all?’, then Patten provides us with the simplest of answers: ‘A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us’. Although death brings much uncertainty and grief in its wake, the memories that we share with our families about those we have lost is no small consolation. As time unfolds, the importance of remembering those we love increases, and by talking, laughing and sharing stories with other people, we can ensure they remain with us forever. Patten’s poetry suggests that our dearly departed can attain a form of immortality through a continued presence within our thoughts and memories. In revisiting Patten’s poem on the anniversary of Pablo Neruda’s birth, we should take comfort in the knowledge that remembrance of the past –and of memories shared with those we have loved and lost– gives us a means of getting beyond grief and moving forward in our lives.

 

So many different lengths of time, Brian Patten

 

How long does a man live after all?
A thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man spend living or dying
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?

Adrift in such preoccupations, we seek clarification.
We can go to the philosophers
but they will weary of our questions.
We can go to the priests and rabbis
but they might be busy with administrations.

So, how long does a man live after all?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret and ask so many questions –
then when it comes to us
the answer is so simple after all.

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.

His lover will carry his man’s scent, his touch:
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments,
another will hum his favourite tunes,
another will still share his terrors.

And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then the weeks, then the months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach
and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day he will not have ceased
but will have ceased to be separated by death.

How long does a man live after all?
A man lives so many different lengths of time.