A Dangerous Climate (Saint-Germain #22)

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05.03.2019

FERENZ RAGOCZY, GROFOK SAINT-GERMAIN

Text of a report from Thomas Bethune, Presbyterian lay-preacher and clerk to the English Resident, to Colonel Sir Peregrine Broughton at Sankt Piterburkh, delivered by household messenger.

To the most esteemed Colonel Sir Peregrine Broughton, diplomatic courier in service to the English Crown at the Residence in Sankt Piterburkh, Russia.

My dear Colonel,

I have this morning attended a meeting at the Naval Building called by Alexander Menshikov for residents of the Foreign Quarter of this city regarding the disposition of bodies once the ground freezes, which we are told it should do within the next four weeks, and continue in that state until the end of April. After the ground is solid, it will be impossible to inter coffins or corpses in the earth, and because we have no Protestant churches here that would permit burial under the floor, there are plans that must be quickly put in place to cope with providing Christian care to those who die before spring. I made a transcript of what he said, and I will append those shorthand notes to this longhand account for your records.

First we were informed that many of the ferrymen will not be operating their ferries once the ice forms, given that the river will be frozen, and many drayers will not carry the dead across the ice, since it is considered most unlucky to do so, even if there were some place they might be buried once they were transported. Those pagan fishermen who live at the far end of this island burn their dead in winter, but no one was willing to consign bodies to pagans for disposal.

Menshikov has announced that he can allocate a small warehouse for the storage of corpses in coffins, awaiting the time when they can be taken to the Protestant cemetery for proper obsequies and burial. He has also offered the possibility of boiling the bodies so that their bones may be returned to their homelands when the ships are able to sail. The religious consequences would be similar to the collection of bones of those killed in battle, according to the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan.

For those wishing to store bodies in coffins in the warehouse, Menshikov has said that a watch would be put on the warehouse so that no man or animal can desecrate any bodies stored there. He has charged all of the residents of the Foreign Quarter to decide how they want their dead secured for the winter, and to provide him with a formal notification of what each household has decided, along with a list of the household members who are to be included in these plans, so that if any should die, there will be no misunderstanding of how they are to be disposed. Any dead not listed with foreign households or acknowledged Orthodox Christians will be shrouded and put through the ice after anointing by a priest of the Russian Orthodox faith.

By my reckoning, the Resident has nine Protestants on his staff, and four Catholics. Two of the Protestants have their wives with them, and they must be numbered among those of the household. I have already made a list of these persons and will present it to Alexander Menshikov as soon as the Resident approves it. I believe it would be wise to prepare a copy of the list for the care-house, in case any of our staff should die while there. I have volunteered to arrange a kind of service for the winter-dead of this household that will offer the consolation of prayer at the time of death rather than postpone any rites until the ice has melted. Whether we return bones or save the bodies in coffins, I will strive to supply every hope of Heaven for those who are lost to us here.

It is my understanding that the Czar favors keeping the bodies in coffins, but he has also said that the households must supply the coffins, which means purchasing lumber at outrageous prices, since all the lumber here in the city is allocated for building, and coffins are not numbered among the structures covered in their allotment. This would require that woodsmen be paid to bring extra lumber to the Residence, and all such lumber would have to be stored indoors, for otherwise it would be damaged by cold and wet, or stolen. If this is our choice, we must act quickly, for once the Neva is covered in ice, the woodsmen will require twice as much money to bring lumber to us.

Since in your capacity of courier, you also maintain the Residence staff rolls, I ask you to inform me at once of any decision you and the Resident reach in this regard. We are under some insistency to reach a decision, and to that end, I have it on the authority of the Prussian secretary, Theophilius Schaft, that they have decided on securing coffins for their dead, and would be willing to share the lumber storage if we would off-set the expense and provide additional storage for the cut boards.

We were informed that counted deaths from Swamp Fever now stand at more than three hundred. Deaths from it among the work-gangs can only be guessed at, for no records are kept of those fatalities, and the bodies are consigned to the Neva with minimal ceremony. With this in mind, I believe it would be better to prepare for more deaths than for fewer. Among the Russian servants of this Residence we have had fourteen contract the fever and two have died, although seven are recovered and five are on the mend. Of those who have died, the Russian Church has taken them and given them burial after their customs. We must not be less attentive to those who have come to this place for the sake of England; we owe them at the least a decent burial.

These are my thoughts on the matter: I have spent part of this day praying for guidance, and I have decided that while I want to lie in the good Northumberland earth, if I die here, I would want to remain here, for it would be the place where God called me, and my death on this shore would be His Will. To that end, I ask to be numbered among those to be encoffined and buried in the Protestant cemetery when the weather permits. To me, it is fitting to mark a passing where it happened. Heaven is not dependent on earthly geography, nor is Hell. At the Last Trumpet, we will all rise to Judgment, and where we fell will mean nothing. I do not think my bones would console my family sufficiently to justify boiling my flesh away.

Submitted with respect,

Yours to command,

Thomas Bethune

recording clerk

October 9th, 1704