Lt. Irving’s grave

At Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh you can find the tomb of Lt. John Irving, RN, of the Franklin Expedition. This tomb contains the remains of an officer of the Franklin Expedition buried on King William Island, which were discovered by Lt. Schwatka. On the basis of a medal found associated with the grave, the remains were identified as those of Lt Irving.

Lt. Irving's tombWere they really Irving’s bones? Who knows, but it was a privilege for me to see this beautiful Celtic cross in the immaculately maintained Dean’s Cemetery in Edinburgh.

I was struck not only by the dignity of the monument and its setting, but also by the aptness of its carving. Right down the shaft of the cross, it bears the following inscription:

In memory of Lt. John Irving, RN. HM Ship Terror. Born 1815. Died in King William’s Land 1848-9. Her Majesty’s Ships Erebus and Terror left England in May 1845 under command of Sir John Franklin KCB to explore a North West Passage to the Pacific. [Note the ‘a’, not ‘the’] After wintering 1845-6 at Beechey Island they sailed south down Franklin’s Strait and entered the NW Passage. Having been there beset with ice for two years Sir J Franklin and 8 other officers and 15 seamen having died the survivors 105 in number Lt. Irving being one landed on King William’s Land and attempted to march to Canada but all died from cold and want of food. In 1879 Lt. Schwatka of the American searching expedition discovered Lt. Irving’s grave. Through his kindness the remains of this brave and good officer were brought away and were deposited here on 7th January, 1881.”

Below it is the quotation from the Bible – Romans 8:35 – “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” St. Paul went on to write: “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”. The answer presumably was – no. In turn below that is the the famous wording from Horace, Odes III, 2, 13, which chillingly was used by Wilfred Owen for the title of of one of his most moving poems “Decorum est pro patria mori” – it is right to die for one’s country. One wonders whether Owen was aware of this use of the quotation when he chose it as the title of his poem. And finally, there is an attractive bas relief showing the imaginary scene of the burial of Irving on King William Island. In the background can be seen the two ships Erebus and Terror. This does look rather similar to the bas relief on the Franklin Memorial in Waterloo Place, London, except without the more absurd fantasies of that one – no mountainous icebergs. And on Irving’s tomb the mourners are shown holding nothing more unorthodox than a spade. Of course in reality I am not sure how much use a spade would have been for a gravedigger on King William Island – but at least the mourning sailors are not clutching bows and arrows as they appear to be in Waterloo Place! The bas relief is till in very good condition.

Of course when I spent my time before this cross I had two very different emotions. The historian in me mourned the loss of the young man buried below, and appreciated the quiet dignity of the tomb erected over him. But the archaeologist in me started to obsess about the potential for forensic evidence that was below my feet. Should we try to disinter these remains and see whether modern forensic research could find out more about this man and his unhappy death? Who knows?