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Dundee Courier 03 March 1858



The Town has been moved from its propriety for some days past by a church-yard story, which, when stripped of its exaggerations, loses much of its pictorial interest. It seems that about three weeks ago the Sextons, while employed in digging a grave, came upon a portion of a body upon which the work of decomposition had not been complete-although it is alleged the the grave had not been opened since 1843. The workmen, instead of closing up the grave, as was obviously their duty, removed the un-decomposed remains to another spot and buried them there. In doing so they possibly were not aware that they were guilty of any aggravated offence. But their proceedings were overlooked by some workmen engaged in painting the railings round a grave in the neighbourhood, and it was too remarkable an occurrence not to be spoken about. Accordingly some person to whom the story was related made a complaint to the Hospitalmaster, and by him an inquiry was made at the Sextons. They gave an explanation which appeared satisfactory at the time, and there the matter rested for a few days. But about a week afterwards a second investigation was made at the burying ground, which resulted in the discovery of the portion of the body already referred to in the place where it had been interred by the grave-diggers. The consequence was-that three of these men were dismissed on the instant, and along with them the superintendent of the Burying Ground. The act of summary dismissal of men who were probably unconscious of any great turpitude in removing a portion of remains which after a lapse of fourteen years had not resolved into its kindred dust, (although the half of that time is generally considered sufficient for the work of dissolution), may perhaps be considered by some sufficiently severe. It is not uncommon to see fragments of mortality, not so long interred, scattered about the grave mouth, without any keen sense of enormity. Grave-diggers become familiarized by their occupation with sights which would shock persons of more sensitive feelings. One who knew human nature was has brought this prominently out in one of the most exquisite of his plays. The Prince of Denmark, hearing a grave-maker indulge in ribbald levity over his work, asks-" Has this fellow no feelings of his business ? he sings at grave-making!": to which Horatio replies-" Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness."
And this remark suggests a train of reflections on the fate which awaits even the most distinguished of mortals "Alexander died; Alexander was buried; Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why, of that loam whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel ?
"Imperial Caesar, dead, and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away."
All this is very humiliating to our proud pretensions, but it is nevertheless true to nature. And the same idea has been beautifully brought out in one of the finest poems in our language-
"See yonder maker of the dead man's bed,
The sexton, hoary-headed chronicle:
Of hard, unmeaning face, down which ne'er stole
A gentle tear: with mattock in his hand,
Digs through whole rows of kindred and acquaintance
By far his juniors. Scarce a skull's cast up
But well he knew its owner, and can tell
Some passage of his life. Thus hand in hand
The sot has walked with death twice twenty years."

It is vain, therefore, to expect susceptibility of refinement in men engaged in such an occupation; and we need not be greatly surprised to find in them an indifference to the objects which daily present themselves, offensive to those who but rarely come into contact with such melancholy memorials of humanity. While we say this, we do not blame our public Authorities for the act of dismissal in so as regards the real offenders. But we do decidedly demur to their including in that dismissal one whom we believe to be as innocent of the offence as any one of themselves. Mr James Kettles is the superintendent both of the Old and New burying Ground, and his time is pretty equally divided betwixt the two. Although in one sense officially responsible for those under him, he had no more connection with the act complained of than the Hospital master himself; and from his known character, there can be no doubt that he would have peremptorily prohibited any removal even a portion of an un-decomposed body. Yet Mr Kettles has been deprived of his situation, and dismissed with all the opprobium which attaches to an unfaithful servant. We are not surprised that his case has already excited a strong feeling of sympathy, and that a representation, numerously and respectably signed, has been addressed to the Town Council. We cannot doubt that that representation will receive a favourable consideration.
Mr Kettles cannot be held responsible for the crowded state of the New Burying Ground, which we believe to be the real cause of the occurrence which led to the present investigation. It would be well if our public Authorities would turn their attention to the important subject of providing more accommodation for the dead, so that the system of piling several bodies upon one another in what are called common graves may be discontinued. Such packing may be allowable in times of pestilence, but surely in ordinary seasons of mortality it ought to be discontinued. The poor doubtless, as well as rich, ought to be protected in their last resting place, and be safe from intrusion until the mortal part has mingled with its kindred clay.




© Lamb Collection, Dundee Central Library