Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead

An Oracle of Ashes: The Burial of James Purdy


  • Maria Cecilia Holt Independent scholar



James Purdy, funeral, grief, ashes, Dame Edith Sitwell, Tennessee Williams


James Purdy (b. 1914), an American writer known for his grim humour and embrace of the outlandish and estranged, died in 2009, shortly after uttering his final wish: that after cremation his ashes should be buried near to Dame Edith Sitwell, one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of his works. This essay chronicles the journey of Purdy’s ashes from New York, USA, to Northamptonshire, UK, where they were laid to rest ten years after his death, and it explains how the present writer came to know Purdy not only through his novels, plays and poems, but also through working with Purdy’s literary executor, John Uecker, who also served as an assistant to Tennessee Williams. Necessarily autobiographical in certain passages, this essay tells of the discovery of grief in the process of planning the burial, of the power that can inhere in the materiality of cremated remains, and of the legal and logistical complexities of plotting interment across international borders.

Author Biography

Maria Cecilia Holt, Independent scholar

Maria Cecilia Holt has a doctorate from Harvard University’s Divinity School. Her thesis is on the importance of Renaissance humanism for early modern encounters with the ‘New World’. She has conducted research on the ‘textuality of textiles’ as well as on burial and oratory, both in early Christianity and in missionary accounts of indigenous funeral traditions in Southeast Asia. E-mail:





Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead