The obsessive attachment to our mortal remains is a deeply seeded and timeless facet of the human condition. So much so that we take for granted the strange mementos we keep from our passed loved ones. Perhaps, in our inability to understand death, we have normalized these postmortem rituals to comfort us in the face of the profoundly unknowable. Or, maybe, these funerary rites, passed down through the millennia, conceal some true and meaningful way to keep us connected to the dead.
Today, keeping locks of hair or ash-filled urns is hardly out of the ordinary, and only a generation or two ago owning cemetery property and family plots were a common investment. Go back a little further and “mourning portraits” were a popular service, where the recently dead were dressed up, posed, and photographed. Certainly, the accepted normal has evolved over the years, but our unwillingness to release the ones we love remains intact. Occasionally, the power of grief is so great that it demands a more extreme token from death, such was the case with Mary Shelly.
Mary Shelly is most famously remembered as the author of Frankenstein and as the wife of the great romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their marriage was legendary, inspiring countless books, plays, and movies throughout the years. However, it was also a short lived and tragic affair. On July 8, 1822, only a month from his thirtieth birthday, Shelley drowned in the Gulf of La Spezia when his boat went down in a sudden storm. There are many that claim that foul play was involved, insinuating that his boat may have been rammed by a larger vessel, and there is certainly some evidence to support the theory. Regardless, Mary was heartbroken.
It wasn’t until ten days later that his body was recovered, however it was so badly decomposed and ravaged by animal predation that he was only identified by his clothes and a small book of Keats’ poetry found in his pocket. By quarantine law, the body was required to be cremated as soon as it was brought to shore, which was performed by a group of his friends. Mary Shelley was not present for the event, as it was customarily discouraged for women to attend funerals at the time.
There are many tellings of the cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley, all with varying details. One of the most popular versions describes his heart as being somehow resistant to the flames, which inspired one of his friends, Edward Trelawny, to reach into the pyre and to pluck it out. However, it was managed, the heart was then given to Mary Shelley who kept it until her death.
Considering the players at hand, the story became mythologized over the years. That was until her death in 1851, when, among her belonging, the heart of her dead husband was found wrapped in the pages of one of his best-known works, Adonais. Accounts of this vary, though all agree that the total sum of his remains now lie in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.
An excerpt from Adonais:
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay