Famous Exhumations English Author Laurence Sterne

About the English author Laurence Sterne and his exhumation.


LAURENCE STERNE (1713-1768), British novelist

Sterne is credited with writing the first "modern" novel only a few years after the novel itself was invented. His classic Tristram Shandy (1760) made Sterne widely popular, and he nicknamed himself "Yorick" after the exhumed jester in Hamlet for, like Yorick, he delighted his contemporaries.

Sterne died in a poor boardinghouse and was buried in Bayswater, a London cemetery notorious for grave robbing. There his body was snatched, according to popular account, and sold to Cambridge, where it was dissected by Dr. Charles Collignon. The doctor had no idea the body under his knife was one of London's most popular writers until, during the dissection, it was recognized by a spectator. All were horrified at the desecration, but Collignon is said to have kept Sterne's skull anyway, and to have added it to Cambridge's collection. Searchers there have never uncovered it.

In 1968 an excavation at Sterne's original grave by the Laurence Sterne Trust uncovered several skulls, one with the top cut off as the result of a dissection (a rarity, since few were performed in Sterne's day). Correct in size and proportion for the novelist, the skull, it was theorized, had been replaced by the Cambridge doctor. The trust had it reburied as Sterne's under his gravestone at another location, but positive identification was never made. Historians and experts still disagree about the true fate of Sterne, but all admit that Sterne's grave may be occupied by someone else. "Alas, poor Yorick...," reads the highly appropriate opening line of Sterne's epitaph.

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