Myth 1: Cervantes died on April 23
No. Cervantes probably died on April 22. Church records say he was interred on April 23, 1616, and in Spain people are generally laid to rest on the day after their death. There is no doubt, however, that he was interred at the church of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in central Madrid, a few blocks from his home.
Myth 2: Cervantes died on the same day as Shakespeare
No, for two reasons. Number 1: William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, not April 22. Number 2: Spain was using the Gregorian calendar (just as we do now worldwide), while England was still using the old Julian calendar. The Gregorian equivalent of April 23, 1616, is May 3, 1616. Shakespeare died ten days after Cervantes was interred.
In spite of that, UNESCO has established April 23 as World Book Day to honor the two authors’ (more or less) simultaneous deaths and their unquestionable status as giants of literature.
Myth 3: Cervantes’ remains were found in 2015
Maybe. A team of 36 experts in history, archeology, and anthropology spent more than a year investigating Cervantes’ interment at the Trinitarian church. They knew his remains had been “consolidated” around 1730 after the church was rebuilt. That means the remains from several crypts were combined to free up space for more interments.
Eventually, these experts located a grave from the right time, judging from fragments of clothing and a coin found in it. But what they discovered was in fact a mixture of casket hardware, pieces of wood, some rocks, and quite a few deteriorated bone fragments. (Photo by the Municipality of Madrid.) The fragments were sorted out and corresponded to six children and at least ten adults, including men and women.
One of those bones was a jaw whose owner had lost most of his teeth. We know that Cervantes had very few teeth when he died. Some rib and arm bones showed signs of injuries like the ones Cervantes suffered in the Battle of Lepanto. The director of the investigation announced that “it is possible” that “some fragments” were from Cervantes. “We can’t resolve that question with absolute certainty, and that’s why we’re prudent. We’re convinced we have something.”
Corroborating that “something” with DNA would help, but it’s going to be tough to get DNA from family members, since their remains aren’t in any better shape, if they can even be found.
In spite of that, you can go on guided tours of the church and view a five-foot-tall granite headstone that rests a floor above what are possibly Cervantes’ remains. The tour guide tells visitors, “It doesn’t matter if they’re here, over there, or somewhere else. The author hasn’t left this place.” And that’s for certain. What’s left of him, though it might not be much, is definitely in that church. Somewhere.
Myth 4: We writers should honor his remains with a visit
Maybe. Madrid is a great place to visit. These aren’t saintly relics, however, so they won’t radiate any sort of blessing to improve our souls. Even if they did, remember that while we now celebrate Cervantes’ genius, during his lifetime he was always poor and overlooked. That’s why his remains were “consolidated.” Only those rich enough to pay for the privilege got to rest in peace and solitude for all time to come. Everyone else was moved to joint burials if their space was needed for a new interment.
If we make a solemn pilgrimage to his resting place, we might be blessed by genius — or we might be cursed by poverty and obscurity. We don’t need Cervantes’ help to achieve that.
— Sue Burke