We were two little girls looking for something to do on a quiet Christmas Eve in the funeral home.

Our father was downstairs working on a body. Upstairs, my sister and I sat on the floor in a little room my mother called “the children’s den”. If, for some reason, the floor collapsed beneath us we would have landed right atop our father’s big white porcelain embalming table. And on this night, this Christmas Eve, we would have been introduced to the elderly man who lay upon it.

We were supposed to be asleep, so we scooted near the small television wearing our matching red Christmas nightgowns and turned the sound down low as we searched the four channels to choose our evening’s entertainment. It was late, and one of the stations had already gone off the air. But wait, what was this? We paused when we heard the first dark chords of the opening music to A Christmas Carol. We looked at each other wide-eyed, for there was nothing we liked more than being scared. This sounded promising and like no other carol we’d heard. Our young lives spent entirely in a funeral home surrounded by the steady flow of the dead, and we still searched for ghosts, sought them out at every opportunity. If there was a haunted house to be explored, a ghost story to be heard, an abandoned farm to be analyzed, we were there. We even roamed the hallways of old hotels whenever we were on holiday, where we hoped to detect an undiscovered crime scene or possibly stumble upon an apparition.

We found our ghosts late that evening in a rerun of the 1951 film classic, A Christmas Carol. This man, this Scrooge, held our attention.

The Alastair Sim version of Dickens’s story was our first impression of London. We imagined the real England to be exactly like this film, completely colourless, where people spoke in different accents, all called London.

Huddled together on the floor with blankets and pillows we remained entranced with the story, when, just before Scrooge’s transformation, the UNDERTAKER appeared! This undertaker looked nothing like our handsome father.

And he was a thief!


Even though we didn’t know exactly what it was that moved us so, we understood the redemption bit. The story was so well written and acted that we were in tears when old Scrooge bought the goose for the Cratchits.

And then, with impeccable timing, here came our own Bob Cratchit, our smiling provider, up from the lower floor of doom. He stood before us with his tie, a working hazard, tucked into his trousers, his hands shrivelled from the continuous flow of water and other unmentionable fluids. (He scoffed at the thick rubber gloves used in those days. So awkward.) Tired from his late night work, he shooed us off to bed, his duties not yet complete as he changed his undertaker’s hat for that of Santa’s.

Thus began my lifelong awe and love of Dickens. I read him every year and always include his carol on Christmas Eve. He had a long hand, err, longhand that stretched all the way to two uninitiated girls living in a small town, in a funeral home, at a time when we felt completely cut off from the world. Yes, his work is sentimental, but I quite like pages of sentiment when they are so beautifully, humorously and tragically drawn.


One afternoon last year I came upon an old stone house in Hampstead, so dark, so dreary that it could have been Scrooge’s house. Then I saw the blue plaque. I ran home to call my sister.

“Guess whose house I walked by today?”

“Um, I don’t know.”

“Alastair Sim’s”

“Who’s Alastair Sim?”

“Scrooge!” I screamed, “Scrooge!”

A Bicentennial of a Different Sort
The Resurrectionist

He stood on the edge of the mob at Tyburn while the human vultures descended upon the corpse of the executed.

He waited as the family fought to claim the body of the condemned from the sporting crowd. Not far from him, the undertakers fought each other to gain the attention of the deceased’s family. Less prominent surgeons fought to buy off the family and purchase the corpse, hoping to cut out the middleman – him - Joseph Naples, resurrection man.

As we shift into full gear for the Charles Dickens bicentennial, the Hunterian Museum recently hosted Kirsty Chilton’s lecture on a bicentennial of a different sort: The account of a man who two hundred years ago kept a diary of his life as one of the busiest resurrectionists of his time. A rare, grave, thing.

Naples’ career began ten years before his first diary entry in 1811. He was unlucky in his young professional life and made silly mistakes. He approached the wrong undertaker who turned him over to the authorities when he tried to sell him a corpse in 1801. Sent to Coldbath Fields House of Correction to serve a two-year sentence, he scrambled over the wall in a successful escape during the 1802 riots behind the prison.

As one of The Borough Gang, Naples worked in a team of eight who supplied London’s leading hospitals with corpses. In clear handwriting he recorded places, names, buying, selling, and prices. He wrote of the bodies of children and babies.

A typical entry:

“At 2 a.m. got up, the Party went to Harps, got 4 adults and 1 small, took 4 to St. Thomas. Came home, went to Mr. Wilson and Brookes. Dan got paid £8/8/0 from Mr. Wilson. I received £9/9/0402 from Mr. Brookes. Came over to the borough, sold small for £1/10. Received £4/4/0 for adult. At home al night”

In 1813 he was arrested again, but by this time his connections to prominent surgeons were so strong that he easily got bail. Arrested for the last time in 1819, it was believed he either finally became cleverer, or changed his name. As a colleague of his once said, “It’s safer to be in teeth.”

The diary reveals his body snatching duties and we come to understand more than a glimpse of his daily work life. Naples kept tabs on other grave robbers; there was in-fighting and fierce competition. His figure haunted funerals where he made notes of the locations of the freshest graves.

The gang also made up the shortfall in other cities in England and Scotland. Naples nonchalantly recorded the task of packaging bodies and preparing them for delivery to Edinburgh as if he were about to post a letter.

It was a seasonal occupation. The heat and overwhelming odours associated with the profession made it impossible to hold anatomy classes in the summer. Naples worked hard throughout the winter, stealing sixty bodies a month, or more. I thought how my undertaker father worried about the icy Southern ground of winter and constantly checked with his gravediggers, concerned he would have to delay a burial. I wondered if, when Naples’ shovel struck the earth, it was ever met with a fierce resistance.

Naples drew a simple, basic moon chart in his diary. Knowing when the moon was waxing and waning was important to his work; he wished to avoid the glare of a full moon, which would have clearly exposed him.

There are few references to his personal life, but here’s one: "Went to the pub, got drunk."

In the 1820’s work became more dangerous and difficult. Cemetery watchers planted in burial grounds with dogs and guns were a new fear for resurrectionists. And in an ironic and bitter turn, Naples and others were horrified to witness their colleagues stolen from their graves upon their death. Terrified they would suffer the same fate of those they had stolen, the resurrection men begged their relatives to promise they would be left undisturbed. They paid off surgeons, clergy and family to safeguard their own graves.

The 1832 Anatomy Act opened the way for body dealing rather than body snatching. The Act gave the surgeons and students legal access to corpses that were unclaimed after death.

It had been a lucrative career for most resurrectionists. One year Naples’ receipts totalled £1,394 8s and one of his associates was worth nearly £6,000 when he died. But many of the body snatchers threw their money away on alcohol, women and gambling. Naples fell into this group.

By the 1830’s, his grave robbing days behind him, Naples worked as a porter, little more than a servant, in the dissecting room at St. Thomas’s Hospital.

Joseph Naples died in 1843 of an alcohol related illness.