Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 15, 1891 --- The Mausoleum in Mortlake

Eight months after his death, the explorer Sir Richard Burton is buried in the small Catholic cemetery at St. Mary Magdalen's in Mortlake, outside London. At 69, Burton had died of heart failure the previous October at Trieste where he'd been British consul since 1872.

Embalmed in full uniform, Burton's body remained in Trieste while his wife Isabel went home to England hopeful of winning for her husband a burial place in Westminster Abbey, an honor afforded Dr. Livingstone (see 18 April). Her wish is politely denied. Apparently Burton's translations of the Kama Sutra and the unexpurgated Arabian Nights (called by one critic "absolutely unfit for Christians") gave some in the Abbey close grave qualms.

Unruffled, Isabel settled upon the little churchyard at Mortlake, "the most beautiful, the most undeathlike resting place in the wide world." She designed an exotic tent-shaped tomb of Carrara marble, recalling Burton's wish, "I should like us both to lie in a tent, side by side." A public subscription raised the £700 to cover the cost. Fully half the 850 invited guests decline to attend the burial. Isabel, a devout Catholic, managed to offend many of Burton's friends by proclaiming him a deathbed convert. Burton, who had made "the haj" (see 11 September), more likely prayed to Mecca than Rome. Furthermore, she shocked the literary world when she put the torch to most of Burton's unpublished manuscripts, including his translation of The Scented Garden, an Arabic tale of homosexuality and pederasty. She had read it herself; it left her "perfectly bewildered and horrified." Then, Richard's shade appeared to her and said simply, "Burn it!" In The Morning Post, she explained that all but a few readers would "read it for filth's sake ... and the harm [to his reputation] that may be done is incalculable."

Condemned as a "popish harpy," Isabel lived quietly in Mortlake, visiting the tomb each Sunday. Before her death in 1896, she completed a 1200-page biography of her husband - dedicated "To My Earthly Master, Who Is Waiting For Me On Heaven's Frontiers." She was buried, as Sir Richard wished, at his side.

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