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Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Casket Rediscovered in Former Wine Cellar

Parishioners at St. Michael’s Church in Highgate hope to refurbish the crypt after identifying where exactly Coleridge’s final resting place was

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge is best known for the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a doozy of a poem that includes spirits, zombies and, of course, a rotting albatross. As it turns out, since the English poet's death in 1834, Coleridge's remains have taken their own circuitous journey through the underworld. Maev Kennedy at The Guardian reports that the location of Coleridge’s coffin as well as the resting place of his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandson, has finally been pinpointed—in a debris-strewn former wine cellar, no less. Plan are now in place to make it a crypt fit for a major poet.

According to a press release, the poet was originally buried in the crypt of the Highgate School Chapel in north London. However, weathering and a rebuild of the chapel ultimately made the crypt and, in turn, the five coffins it stored, unsafe. So in 1961, the lead coffins of Coleridge and his family were transferred from the chapel to St. Michael’s church's nearby crypt. There was a major ceremony involving the Bishop of London, Coleridge family members, and even the poet laureate of England.

But over the course of the last 50-odd years, however, where exactly the bodies had been placed became hazy. Some people said they were below a plaque honoring Coleridge. Some said they rested in the far corner of the church. Finally, church steward Drew Clode and warden Alan West decided to investigate. “Memories dimmed and there was uncertainty about where the entombment occurred. Some thought it was under the font inside the church,” as Clode tells the local paper Ham & High. “We looked around the rubble in a huge area and it was only using the stone above in the aisle as a clue that we finally picked our way through and found what we were looking for.”

The five lead coffins could be seen through ventilation vents bricked up in what was once the wine cellar of a 1696 Ashhurst house, which sat on the site before the church was built in the early 1830s. “They were covered in dust and barely distinguishable from the rubble. They were barely visible through a grille of an air vent,” Clode says. “I have always been a fan of Coleridge and neither the wine cellar, the tomb-area itself nor the crypt are fit for the remains of this great poet and his family.”

Though Coleridge was known to have problems with alcohol and was addicted to opium, Coleridge’s great-great-great-grandson Richard Coleridge, a police officer, tells Kennedy that he agrees that a rubble-filled wine cellar is not the right spot for his kin. “It has been said that you could see it as appropriate, but it is not in a very fitting state for him, and the family would support the plans to improve it,” he says.

Now, the church hopes to restore the crypt and give the Coleridge family a more fitting final burial place. Vicar Kunle Ayodeji tells Kennedy the parish hopes to clean up its crypt and create a meeting space under the church. While the public would not be able to view the actual coffins, they would like to place an inscription on the wall of the crypt that literary pilgrims could visit.

To that end, reports Ham & High, the parish is launching a fundraising event on June 2, Coleridge Day. The church will perform a special service for the Coleridge family including a performance of the Highgate School Choir along with recitations of some of the poets work. Two Coleridge scholars will also lecture on the poet's spiritual beliefs and his time in Highgate.

Coleridge’s stay there was not particularly happy. His opium addiction and depression had taken a heavy toll on him, leading to a separation from his wife, the loss of motivation to keep writing and a poor reputation among his friends. In 1816, he moved in wih a doctor in Highgate whose home overlooked St. Michael’s church, in hopes of curing his addiction. But instead of staying for a few weeks, as expected, Coleridge lived there for 18 years, eventually dying of heart and lung ailments.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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