Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Life and Death Mysteries

For many years, I have printed out or clipped and saved real-life stories that come under the heading of “strange but true.” I would sometimes repurpose these stories in educational materials that I created for kids. One of the first reading skills workbooks I worked on at Scholastic was entitled Strangely True. It featured, among other things, the story of a man named Joseph Figlock, who was walking in front of an apartment building in Detroit in the 1930s when a baby fell out of a high window and landed on Mr. Figlock, breaking the baby’s fall and saving his life. The next year, the same man was walking in front of the same building when the same baby fell out of the same window and once again landed on him. Another miraculous save! I ended my recounting of the story this way: “So far, it hasn’t happened s third time. Not yet, anyway.”

Now, some people might doubt that this story is factual, but I found the details in a book, and you can find it retold in several Internet websites, so it must be true!

I thought I would blog today about two other stories that I have recently added to my clipping collection. They involve unusual happenings involving the remains of two of the world’s most famous writers—Thomas Hardy and Dante Alighieri. This seems like an appropriate time to retell the stories because today marks the 695th anniversary of Dante’s death.

Dante did not live a peaceful life—which anyone reading the harrowing descriptions in the Inferno might guess. He became embroiled in political shenanigans and was exiled from his hometown of Florence around 1300. He passed some important years of his exile in Verona, which is where Audrey and I encountered an impressive statue erected in his honor. He finally died in Ravenna in northern Italy on September 13, 1321.
Dante stands proudly in Verona
with a bird perched on his head.

For nearly 600 years, even Dante's ashes were not welcome back in Florence, despite the poet’s fame. Then, in 1865, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, an admirer in Ravenna reached into Dante’s tomb, gathered up a few handfuls of his ashes, placed them inside several small cloth sacks, and sent them anonymously to Florence to be part of the big birthday celebration. Fittingly, all but one of the bags were soon stolen or mislaid. Then, in 1929, even that last bag went missing. It would remain lost for 70 years, until workmen repairing bookshelves in the rare manuscripts area of the national central library in Florence found something even rarer—a small rectangular sack filled with Dante’s remains. Presumably, those ashes were then stored in a secure place, and Dante is finally resting in peace.

The story of Dante’s wandering ashes seems pretty tame when compared to the tale of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Hardy has long been one of my favorite writers, and we named our beloved Scottish terrier Tess after one of his main characters. When Hardy died in January 1928, his will called for burying him next to his deceased first wife Emma in a cemetery in rural England. But the literary establishment wanted him buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey in London instead. Well, they actually didn’t want his entire body buried there—that would take up too much space— just his ashes. A gruesome compromise was reached. Hardy’s doctor would remove his heart before cremating the rest of him. Then the heart would be buried in a small casket in the country and the ashes in another casket in the city.

This might all seem a little weird, but the really strange part was still to come. According to legend, the doctor removed the heart and left it wrapped in a towel inside Hardy’s house. Then he went to find a small tin in which to place the heart for burial. While the doctor was away, Hardy’s pet cat found the heart and ate all or part of it. What happened next is still up for debate. Either the actual heart was replaced by a pig’s heart, which was buried in the Dorchester grave. Or the cat, with part of Hardy inside him, was also killed and buried with what remained of Hardy’s heart. I leave it up to anyone reading this to decide which ending is true.
Does this large tomb house two hearts
or just one?
Upon finding the story of Hardy’s heart in a literature newsletter, I sent some of the details to my friend Louis Phillips, a much published and most talented writer, who always seems welcome to strangely true tales. Louis had not only heard the story but had even written a story of his own entitled “The Cat that Swallowed Thomas Hardy’s Heart.” In his story, Louis describes how the family cat, named Max, became a great celebrity after eating Hardy’s heart but literally couldn’t live with his newfound fame. The overwrought cat died and was given a memorial service that was even better attended than Hardy’s own funeral. Before the funeral, the cat’s owners decided to remove its heart to store in a special place. But the heart was stolen by an unknown thief. Where the organ is now remains at the heart of a new mystery.

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