In the churchyard of St. Columba’s Church, a few miles north of Sligo town, Ireland, William Butler Yeats lies under a remarkably plain gravestone bearing his name, birth and death dates, as well as the last three lines of one of his poems: “cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by.”
He was one of Ireland’s most celebrated poets, and explained the plans for his final resting place the best way he knew how, through poetry.
The final verse of “Under Ben Bulben” details the way he wished to spend the rest of eternity:
“Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid, / An ancestor was rector there / Long years ago; a church stands near, / By the road an ancient Cross. / No marble, no conventional phrase, / On limestone quarried near the spot / By his command these words are cut: / Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!”
The graveyard has the remains of a round tower and a high cross constructed in the 11th when there was a Christian monastery on site, founded by Saint Columcille (Columba) in 574.
Either way, the poet got his wish, sort of.
He died in 1939 at age 73, in Menton, France. According to his wife Georgie, his plan was to be buried in France and then, in his own words, “in a year’s time, when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”
However, the reinterment was not a regular process, nor was it completed in a year, probably due to the outbreak of World War II only a few months later.
After the end of the war, French authorities exhumed the body and, sadly, mixed it with other remains in an ossuary.
For this reason, a French forensic doctor only managed to piece a skeleton back together literally “presenting all the characteristics of the deceased.”
Eventually, what was left of him was reinterred in his beloved Sligo in 1948, nine years after his death.
And, not by chance and as mentioned in the poem, the cemetery at St. Columba’s overlooks the Benbulben rock formation.