Bring out your dead

You know that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with the cart that collects dead bodies during the plague? And the dispute over whether the carter can take an old man who’s not quite dead? “I can’t take him like this,” says the carter. “It’s against regulations.”

The scene echoes, probably deliberately, an episode from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, his harrowing account of the plague’s visit to London in 1665.

It happened one night that this poor [piper], whether somebody had given him too much drink  or no … , was laid all along upon the top of a bulk or stall, and fast asleep, at a door in the street near London Wall, towards Cripplegate, and that upon the same bulk or stall the people of some house, in the alley of which the house was a corner, hearing a bell which they always rang before the cart came, had laid a body really dead of the plague just by him, thinking, too, that this poor fellow had been a dead body, as the other was, and laid there by some of the neighbours.

Accordingly, when John Hayward with his bell and the cart came along, finding two dead bodies lie upon the stall, they took them up with the instrument they used and threw them into the cart, and, all this while the piper slept soundly.

From hence they passed along and took in other dead bodies, till, as honest John Hayward told me, they almost buried him alive in the cart; yet all this while he slept soundly. At length the cart came to the place where the bodies were to be thrown into the ground … ; and as the cart usually stopped some time before they were ready to shoot out the melancholy load they had in it, as soon as the cart stopped the fellow awaked and struggled a little to get his head out from among the dead bodies, when, raising himself up in the cart, he called out, “Hey! where am I?” This frighted the fellow that attended about the work; but after some pause John Hayward, recovering himself, said, “Lord, bless us! There’s somebody in the cart not quite dead!” So another called to him and said, “Who are you?” The fellow answered, “I am the poor piper. Where am I?” “Where are you?” says Hayward. “Why, you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you.” “But I an’t dead though, am I?” says the piper, which made them laugh a little though, as John said, they were heartily frighted at first; so they helped the poor fellow down, and he went about his business.

A Journal of the Plague Year is a disturbing reminder that lethal, infectious diseases have been part of the human condition for millennia. The rise of modern medicine—and especially antibiotics—allows those of us in developed countries to shove that dread to the side, notwithstanding periodic reminders like AIDS and Ebola. But antibiotic resistance is on the rise and new disease outbreaks are becoming more common. The day may come when, like Defoe, we must find our own humor in death carts.


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