Finding Cervantes

by Sheila Connolly

Not long ago I was trolling through various odd sites that I bookmark and I stumbled a surprising headline in the Irish news:  “Spain Finds Remains of ‘Don Quixote’ Writer Cervantes.”

We know that the Irish greatly admire writers—to the extent that they give anyone pursuing a career in the literary arts (and others) a tax exemption. (I applaud them!) But I did not realize they were so interested in the relics.


The story goes on to report that the apparent remains of “literary giant” Miguel de Cervantes were found in a convent in Madrid. The author died in 1616, nearly 400 years ago. The team of forensic anthropologists had been searching for a year when they came upon “some fragments” in an alcove in the crypt of the convent. Actually there was a jumble of bones in there—obviously not their original resting place.

cervanted forensic team 2

It is weird to read about this as they put the search and the analysis of the results in forensic terms, familiar to us mystery writers. A team of anthropologists and archeologists first carried out documentary research to identify the site. There is a record that Cervantes was buried in an alcove in the convent’s chapel in the center of Madrid on the day after his death, but apparently no one recorded exactly which alcove.

The researchers used infrared cameras, 3D scanners, and ground-penetrating radar, and they found 33 alcoves. One of those appears to be the right one.

Physical evidence? Pending. They may be doing genetic analysis (I have no idea to whose DNA this may be compared). There is evidence that Cervantes was shot twice in the cheek and once in his left hand during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and his bones (if they have the right ones) would show signs of these injuries.

It would appear that the bones of the “greatest writer of the Spanish Golden Age” and “father of the modern novel” may have been mixed with those of others (one source reports the remains of 17 different people in one mass grave; BBC News reports that his wife may be among them).

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

The media jumped all over this news. The New York Times headline read “Cervantes and the Purpose of Literary Idolatry,” and the author of the editorial, Serge Schmemann, posed the question, “What is it about the graves of great writers and poets that makes them so popular?” Other examples include the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abby in London, where Chaucer was first in, followed by many others, and Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford-on-Avon (yes, I’ve been to both); or Oscar Wilde’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (not me, but my daughter visited, although mainly for Edith Piaf); and Jonathan Swift’s burial place in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin (yup, been there too). In this country, Authors’ Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, is a popular attraction (one-stop shopping: Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, all within feet of each other). At Sleepy Hollow, visitors leave small offerings on the tombstones of their literary idols.

Henry David Thoreau
Jonathan Swift, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin


Louisa May Alcott

Isn’t it interesting that for centuries writers have been interred next to royalty? We should take heart that people believe that writers matter, and continue to honor them.

Have you ever paid tribute to one of your literary idols?

14 Thoughts

  1. Interesting stuff, Sheila. I’ve been to Authors’ Ridge in Concord but not any other author grave that I know of. I also love touring the authors’ homes: Whittier’s right here in Amesbury (where I’m about to be trained as a docent!), Alcott’s, and the Mark Twain house in Connecticut. Love seeing their desks and writing spaces.

    1. Love Orchard House (which I first visited when Norm Abram on This Old House took the tour and said the place needed some support). It really puts the Alcotts into perspective. But somehow I’ve never visited the Emerson house down the street (maybe because I don’t like Ralph Waldo Emerson much). The Twain house is spectacular, but I do love where the author chose to work (with a handy pool table if he hit a brick wall).

  2. You mention two of my favorites — Authors Ridge and Westminster Abbey. I’ve been to Authors Ridge many times. When my daughter was having a really bad day when she was a teen I took her there (now wondering if it was because it’s peaceful or some Freudian way of showing her things could be worse).

    1. I’ve been there with my grandmother, my mother, and my daughter at various times. My great-great-grandfather played a part in creating the Melvin Memorial there, and attended the dedication ceremony (which sounds like it was a day-long event and involved a hired train from Boston, to accommodate all the veterans–there’s a great picture of them all). It’s one of my favorite local places.

  3. I’d love to go to Authors’ Ridge and feel the atmosphere. I haven’t been to favorite writers’ graves but I would, given a chance.

    1. I have a story about Authors’ Ridge. Years ago, when I first started writing, I was house-sitting in a town not far from Concord. When I was getting close to finishing that first submittable book, I decided to visit the authors and ask for their blessing. As I marched up the steps to the hill, I thought I was going to say “help me sell the book.” What came out of my mouth instead was, “help me make it good.” I will be forever grateful to them. (BTW, my family plot is right down the hill from them all.)

  4. Kind of like a grave, my first two years of graduate school I lived in Divinity Hall where Emerson lived. My room was next to the small chapel where he preached and practiced his skills before deciding that ordination was ummmm not the way to do it. The kitchen was in the basement, and that was really like a grave and a place where a certain student saw his ghost one night while doing her laundry in the old repurposed coal bin. His room was the one over the area, and I think he didn’t like the noise. True. True. True. And I came not to be for ordination either. For myself. Especially.

  5. I have not honored any writers that way. I did try to find Walt Disney’s grave one time, but I wasn’t able to at that time. I bet if I tried again, I could find information on where it is on line and actually go.

  6. I’ve been to Westminster Abbey, but have never heard of Authors Ridge. Interesting!
    On my personal bucket list is a trip to Prince Edward Island to visit the grave of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Also, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, though not a gravesite, but close enough certainly.

  7. I had forgotten another trip, to a Church of Ireland cemetery in Castletownsend in County Cork. There were two “maiden ladies” who lived and wrote together there. (Edith Somerville and Violet Ross Martin, who wrote as Martin Ross–their books served as a model for the television series The Irish R.M.). They are buried together. I read something of theirs years ago, but I didn’t go looking for them (I was searching for the Townsends of Castletownsend–yes, there is still a castle of sorts there).

    1. I love stories with old Irish castles. What is it, do you think, that makes the mystique so compelling? I’m guessing that you do.

      1. Because we were raised on a literary diet of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood? I always laugh when driving through the Irish countryside: every few miles you pass yet another small ruined castle, visible from the highway. I’ve clambered through my share. You have to keep in mind that Ireland was frequently invaded, so the landholders needed someplace to retreat to. Or maybe they were busy fighting each other, if there were no invaders that year. But I agree–that tumbledown castle on a lonely hill makes a great romantic image.

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