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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.

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

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?

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