Graveyards as fortresses. Not for fear of the rising dead, but – as a character in The Edinburgh Dead puts it – for the protection of the dead against the avaricious living. Corpses had value in 18th and 19th century Edinburgh, as educational material for the city’s famous medical schools. The bodysnatchers (or, as they were more dramatically known, the resurrectionists) emptied graves at night. Yes, if you died in Edinburgh in 1828, when The Edinburgh Dead is set, and left a reasonably presentable corpse, there was a chance your mortal remains would be surreptitiously dug up, bagged, sold to an anatomist, possibly pickled, and then displayed and dissected for the edification of medical students. The good folk of the city, not unreasonably, thought that more than a little uncalled for. They took steps to deter the nocturnal corpse-thiefs.
They built and manned watchtowers in their cemeteries. (The one shown above is at Duddingston – a location that’s featured in this photo-trailer before).
They set cages about the graves of their loved ones.
They even resorted to massive, impenetrable iron coffins.
It could all easily be an array of defences against the undead, inspired by superstitious fear of revenants clawing their way out of the soil. What’s more unsettling, though? Those fantastical notions, or the truth: that men thought nothing of digging up their recently deceased fellows and selling them for dissection, and that respected – indeed internationally lauded – teachers of medicine found the imperatives of their calling so pressing that they thought it an acceptable way of obtaining cadavers for their anatomy lessons?
Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:
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