The fate of D.H. Lawrence’s ashes after his burial in Vence

During the afternoon of March 4th, 1930, a small group of people gathered in Vence Cemetery for the funeral of the novelist and poet, D.H. Lawrence, who had died of tuberculosis two days previously at the Villa Robermond (see D.H. Lawrence’s final journey, from the sun to the stars). In addition to Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, other mourners included Aldous and Maria Huxley; the English poet, Robert Nichols (who later wrote a long and detailed account of the funeral); and Edward Titus, the Paris-based American publisher who had brought out Lady Chatterley’s Lover the year before. There was no religious service, no prayers and no speeches. In Frieda’s own words, “… we buried him, very simply, like a bird we put him away, a few of us who loved him.”

DH Lawrence with FriedaD.H. Lawrence with Frieda

Five years later, on March 12th, 1935, Lawrence’s body was exhumed at Frieda’s bidding as the first step in her plan to have his remains cremated and the ashes transported to her home in the US – the Kiowa Ranch at San Cristobal near Taos, New Mexico. Her idea was to place them in a shrine to Lawrence’s memory which her lover, former Italian Army officer and later third husband, Angelo Ravagli, had built near the ranch house where he had been living with Frieda since 1931.

Angelo RavagliAngelo Ravagli (1891-1976)Ravagli, whom Frieda had dispatched to Vence to supervise the exhumation, arrived late at the cemetery and almost missed it. By the time he got there, Lawrence’s remains had already been placed in a small zinc-lined casket ready for him to take by hearse to Marseille for cremation the following day.

His mission was then to accompany Lawrence’s ashes to New York on the Conte di Savoia, which was due to sail from Villefranche-sur-Mer early in April. Once in New York and safely through customs, he would transfer the ashes to a more elaborate urn that Frieda had ordered in Europe and which Ravagli had sent poste restante to New York to be collected on his arrival. He was then to embark on the long 4-day railway journey across the US to Lamy, New Mexico, to deliver the new urn and its precious contents to Frieda, who would be waiting for him at the station there.

That was the plan, but if we are to believe the conclusion reached by Vence’s very own Lawrence scholar, the late Emile Delavenay, it seems probable that Lawrence’s ashes never crossed the Atlantic at all. According to an article entitled “A Shrine Without Relics”, which Delavenay published in 1984, a more credible scenario was that unbeknown to Frieda then or later, the ashes were unceremoniously dumped in the Mediterranean somewhere between Marseille and Villefranche by a reputedly miserly Ravagli whose only apparent concern was to avoid all the administrative complications and personal expense of transporting Lawrence’s cremated remains to the US, even if it later meant telling Frieda an enormous lie about the substitute ashes he procured in New York and deceitfully passed off as her defunct husband’s when he finally arrived in New Mexico.

Emile DelavenayEmile Delavenay (1905-2003)The story emerged in 1984 when Professor Delavenay was contacted about the fate of Lawrence’s ashes by Baron Prosper de Haulleville, a Belgian petroleum engineer and brother-in-law of Maria Huxley’s younger sister, Rose. In a meeting in Vence with Professor Delavenay in February of that year, de Haulleville related how during the course of two evenings he and his sister-in-law had spent as guests at the Kiowa Ranch at an unspecified date before Ravagli died in 1976, some 20 years after Frieda, their host – having imbibed generous quantities of the bourbon they had brought him as a gift – tearfully confessed to lying to Frieda about Lawrence’s ashes. Evoking the numerous administrative and financial difficulties he had encountered following the exhumation (most of which Delavenay demonstrated were exaggerated or blatantly untrue), he remorsefully admitted: “I threw away the D.H. cinders”, and “My worst lie is the D.H. Lawrence cinders lie.”

Delavenay’s conclusion was that there was no reason to disbelieve de Haulleville’s version of events, and that Ravagli’s confession was doubtlessly genuine. And what of Lawrence in all this? What would he have thought of the fate of his own mortal remains? In all probability, he would have seen the amusing side of the story and approved of his ashes being scattered across the azure-blue surface of the Mediterranean which he loved so much, rather than being mixed into the cement of Frieda’s concrete memorial to him in the Lawrence Chapel, which was the fate reserved for the ashes delivered by Ravagli. In the absence of any hard evidence, however, we will – as Professor Delavenay suggested – have to form our own opinion and decide “whether to go and meditate on Lawrence’s remains along the quays of the Vieux Port in Marseille, or in front of Ravagli’s concrete slab in the ‘shrine’ at San Cristobal.”

Photo of Angelo Ravagli by Carl Van Vechten, by kind permission of The Van Vechten Trust.

See also: Tracing the 1,000-mile odyssey of D.H. Lawrence’s phoenix headstone

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