W. B. Yeats, one of Ireland’s most celebrated authors died in France in 1939. His body was buried in the Roquebrune cemetery and a few years later his bones were dug up and scattered in an ossuary where they were mixed with the bones of many others. In 1948 the Yeats family and the Irish government requested the poet’s body and a French coroner was dispatched to gather his remains together. The bones were escorted by the French army to an Irish navy vessel and they were reburied with national ceremony in Yeats’s beloved County Sligo.
Since then there has been some scepticism about the possibility that French officials could have reassembled Yeats’s skeleton. Recently, more documents that have come to light lend force to this. See the report in The Irish Times which includes photos of the reburial of Yeats: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/yeats-papers-confirm-bones-sent-to-sligo-were-not-poet-s-1.2288662.
As the article points out, one scholar has noted that a DNA test would put an end to the question but there is resistance to this. It is argued that the symbolic is more important than the prosaic truth. Actually, this is quite fitting in Yeats’s case and the location of his bones does not take from or add to his literary achievement. With any luck, there might be Yeats bones both in Sligo and in France and then there could be two sites for pilgrims to visit. The Yeats family may well be fed up with people interfering with Yeats’s bones, and that is their unquestionable prerogative. For others to prefer a romance to reality is less acceptable as this is the sort of fantasy that appears in myths of nationhood and religion that can turn out to be all too powerful and pernicious.
Yeats is not the only corpse to have been repatriated to Ireland. In the 1960s Roger Casement (once Sir Roger, and a possible influence on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) was exhumed from Pentonville Prison in London where he had been executed for treason for his part in the 1916 Irish Rising. His body was returned to Dublin where it was interred with full military honours: part of making the nation is possessing the bones of its heroes. These bones are probably authentic but the controversy about Casement is whether his ‘Black diaries’ are since these included extensive accounts of his homosexual liaisons. The diaries have been the subject of forensic examination and much debate. In this instance, historical facts have clearly been more important than pious legend and if there was a test as simple as a DNA one that would resolve the question of the diaries’ authenticity it’s unlikely that it would not be administered.