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Unearthly Urban Legends Archive

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 foreign family unknowingly consumes the ashes of a relative shipped to them for burial.
When the family moved to North America, they kept in constant touch with their European relatives. Letters and parcels regularly made their way from one shore to another. After a long period of silence, a small box arrived from the U.S. Inside, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, was a jar of grey powder. There was no note, but since many of the previous parcels had contained ready-to-make packaged mixes, the European family members thought that this powder, too, was a mix that would be prepared by simply adding water. The sauce was made and served, but it wasn't the best they had eaten! Several days later, a letter arrived from the U.S. explaining that the father had died, and because he had always been homesick, he wished his ashes to be spread over his home town. Grandma hoped that the rest of the family would not be inconvenienced and that the letter would get to them before the ashes, which were being sent separately in a jar and were securely wrapped in tissue paper.
The relative's remains are usually shipped in an urn mistaken for an ordinary jar by the recipients, but in many versions of this legend the confusion is caused by the ashes' having been packaged in some sort of makeshift container such as a small box or a re-used food container such as a cocoa tin.
The food item for which the remains are mistaken varies: an instant drink; a condiment, spice, or sauce mix (generally served with meat), flour (baked into bread or cake), powdered soup, or even dried coconut.
The explanatory letter does not arrive in time because it is mailed separately several days after the ashes are shipped (sometimes due to post office regulations that prevent letters from being sent inside packages), or because it is posted at the same time as the package but gets delayed in transit. Other versions feature an identifying letter that accompanies the remains but is written in a foreign language, and the family eats the remains before the letter is translated.
Origins:   This  tale has circulated both as a legend and as a joke, and it features several themes common to both: unwitting consumption of a disgusting substance, disaster caused by unfamiliarity with modern technology, and humorous mishaps initiated by unsophisticated ethnic "rubes." It was widespread in the years just after the end of World War II, when European families in war-torn areas commonly received food shipments from relatives (and powdered food products were fairly new). The two main variants of this story involve a relative in an English-speaking country (e.g., Canada, Australia, the United States) shipping home the ashes of a family member who fled Britain to escape the war, or a relative in America sending the remains of an immigrant family member back to a country in continental Europe. (The former version incorporates the delayed letter; the latter features the note requiring translation.)
As folklorist Charles Clay Doyle has noted, this legend is similar to a grim bit of anti-semitic humor dating from the Renaissance, in which an Italian Jew attempts to smuggle the corpse of a friend home to Venice for burial (an illegal act at the time) by packing the dismembered body in a jar with spices and honey. During the boat trip back to Italy, a gentile passenger mistakes the substance in the jar for a delicacy and eats portions of it.
Imbibers drink the liquor from a barrel used to preserve a dead body.
Some years ago, the father of a friend of mine brought a fairly enormous house in the middle of Bodmin Moor, a sort of Georgian/Regency house built on the site of an older farmhouse.
In the capacious cellars they found half a dozen very large barrels. 'Oh, good!' said mother. 'We can cut them in half and plant orange trees in them.'
So they set to work to cut the barrels in half, but they found that one of them was not empty, so they set it up and borrowed the necessary equipment from the local pub. The cellar filled witha rich, heady Jamaican odour.
'Rum, by God!' said the father. It was indeed, so they decided to take advantage of some fifty gallons of the stuff before cutting the barrel in half.
About a year later, after gallons of rum punch, flip and butter had been consumed, it was getting hard to get any more rum out of the barrel, even by tipping it up with wedges. So they cut it in half, and found in it the well-preserved body of a man.
British sailors used makeshift enbalming when Lord Nelson died at Trafalgar. Surviving officers decided to return the body to England rather than bury this famous admiral at sea. Reportedly his body was immersed in the ship's brandy stores, the only preservative available. The sailors, though, not wanting to go without their alcohol, siphoned out portions for drinking through a piece of macaroni, eventually draining the brandy dry.
During the winter of 1861, the conductor of a train received for transport a huge parcel addressed to a professor of the College of France. It had been sent from Java. On the way to Paris, the trains was held up on a siding waiting for an express to pass, and during the wait, the conductor and his assistant noticed the parcel was leaking. As the story puts it, it trickled "... un liquide ambre, de gout tres fine at tres particulier." Naturally, he called in his mates, including the driver and fireman, and they boozed on until the express had passed. Wiping their moustaches, they hurriedly went on to their destination to be greeted by the professor who informed them that the parcel held the body of a "great ape of Borneo." 
Besides humans in their final repose, liquor-filled casks of this legend have been said to contain the bodies of monkeys being shipped from Africa to museums in the USA and Britain.
Although tales from all branches of the legend usually conclude with the drinkers' either just realizing what they've been ingesting or becoming ill over it, some versions end with the tipplers' dying of a dread illness brought on by ingesting something a corpse had been stewing in.
Origins:   Versions of the basic legend about unwitting persons drinking a liquid used to preserve a corpse have been around for centuries. The most famous of these older tales features the transported remains of Admiral Nelson, but numerous stories dating as far back as 1861 about casks containing liquor-preserved monkeys going astray have also been meticulously recorded. And as we'll see later, a kissing cousin of this legend was all the rage in the thirteenth century.
The why of this legend goes a bit beyond the expected "person unknowingly ingests yucky foodstuff" theme, which carries the implied message that it is always better to look before leaping (or in this case, peek before quaffing). Folklorist Jan Brunvand states:
Surely there is a strain of poetic justice in almost all of these stories, since regularly the contaminated alcohol is either drunk by someone who more or less deserves his fate, or else the corpse is that of someone who outranked the drinkers. Thus, gentiles (according to the story) eat the hated Jew; common sailors drink the admiral's brandy; Americans party on the defeated English general's wine, and those who have merely bought into the lordly manor drink up the rum left there by its past rightful owner.
Supplementing that idea is the oldest tale of this ilk, a gem from eight hundred years ago that features tomb despoilers who feed themselves their just deserts:
The Arab historian Abd el Latif wrote in the thirteenth century of a group of treasure hunters who found an ancient sealed jar of honey while exploring the tombs beneath the Egyptian pyramids. They settled down to a delicious lunch, dipping their bread into the jar, until one of the diners pulled out a human hair. A quick investigation revealed the preserved body of a child curled up at the bottom of the jar. The historian credits the story to "an Egyptian worthy of belief." If he had checked further, we suspect he would have encountered the familiar chain of friends of friends of friends.
That theme continues to imbue the legend to this day, as this more modern telling about "clever" workmen shows:
As a lad, a foaf [friend of a friend] spent some 18 months helping to re-plumb a country house. The titled lady of the house said to the men, who were living in, that perhaps they might care to earn some money at weekends instead of going to the pub — they could clean the enormous chandeliers in the ball room. She had available a barrel of whisky which could be used for the purpose and which she said she was otherwise going to throw out. Of course, the men agreed; they bought some methylated spirits for the chandelier job, bottled the whisky and drank it themselves.
Afterwards the lady paid them handsomely, and said: "Of course, the best thing was that we were able to use the whisky for something useful instead of throwing it out. My husband died some years ago in Australia, and that whisky was used to pickle his body when it was brought home for burial."
Unlike a closely-related legend about workers who fall into vats and whose unnoticed, decomposing bodies go on to form part of a potable or foodstuff sent on to consumers, "casked corpse" tales lack modern analogues and do not reflect current societal concerns. The explanation for these legends lies in a  combination of hazily-remembered facts about famous bodies shipped in liquor, embellished with a bit of old-fashioned storytelling about sailors determined to have their daily tot or homeowners who make "fortuitous" finds. Yet before the storytelling can be added to the mix, there has to be a foundation of fact to build upon.
In the days before refrigeration and embalming, folks who died far away were sometimes transported home preserved as best they could be in a barrel of alcohol. (Embalming as we know it came into being at the time of the American Civil War, when the efforts of mortician Thomas Holmes, the first American to develop and use embalming fluid, resulted in the preserved bodies of fallen soldiers being returned to their families for burial. Prior to Holmes, all one could do was pack a body in ice and hold the funeral as soon as possible.)
The most famous instance of preservation by immersion in alcohol was the casking of the remains of Lord Nelson in the ship's brandy stores after his death during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. That much is true — Nelson was, in effect, pickled to get as much of him home in as  
decent a state as possible. But not in rum, as would later be claimed in lore. No, Nelson had been immersed in brandy for shipment home. At Gibralter the fluid was replaced with wine.
According to baseless hearsay, when the barrel was opened in England, it was considerably less than full. (In reality, Nelson arrived fairly topped up.) This gave rise to the story that sailors aboard the Victory had been unwilling to let a little thing like a decomposing dead Admiral get between them and their daily swigging and thus had been siphoning off generous helpings, eventually draining the funerary cask dry. Thanks to this bit of lore, the British Navy has come to use the term "tapping the Admiral" for getting an unauthorized drink of rum via a surreptitious straw.
Nelson wasn't the only famous Brit whose remains were casked in booze to get them home. When Prince Henry of Battenberg died from malaria on a British expeditionary force to West Africa in 1895, his body was transported back to England for a royal burial in an improvised tank made from biscuit tins and filled with navy rum.
The remains of less-famous personages have also been transported in this manner. In 1857, Nancy Martin of Wilmington, North Carolina, was on a year-long cruise with her father and brother when she died at sea. The menfolk put her body into a large cask after first tying it to a chair and nailing the chair to the bottom of the barrel to prevent her from floating or sloshing. Whiskey, rum, and wine were poured in, then the barrel was sealed and stored belowdecks. Upon return to dry land, Nancy was buried, still in her booze-filled cask, in Oakdale Cemetery. (Captain Martin was also to lose his son on this same voyage; four months later the lad was swept overboard during a midnight squall.)
It doesn't take all that much by way of fertile imagination to build on any of these true-life caskings — all one needs to make a good tale is to toss at it some thirsty sailors or a handful of parvenues who've inherited the manor but not the manners. That someone's remains could be stored in liquor is enough to set such tales in motion; from there it's but a hop and a skip to the certainty that someone somewhere must have stumbled upon seemingly lucky find only to afterwards discover he'd been "tapping the admiral."

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C. 2007 Mario D Furtado