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A lurid, ultimate act of love. Joris van Casteren writes a beautiful book about a man and his dead mother

Why does someone keep his mother's dead body in the house? In Mother's body Joris van Casteren sketches a fascinating and loving portrait of a man, his mother and a Limburg village.

'Did you hear that story about the man with his dead mother?' his former journalism teacher asked a few years ago. No, Joris van Casteren hadn't. Because he had been in America for his book People on Mars the news reports about Piet van der Molen of Limburg, who had kept the body of his dead mother in his house for two and a half years, had escaped him. Mother and son had lived together all their lives in Berkenstraat in Oirsbeek. Piet's father had already died in 1997, and when 91-year-old Gerda herself also felt her end approaching, she made her son promise to keep her death a secret - then he could just keep living there and look after her cats.

Love act

A few days later, she died and Pete decided he could not break his promise. However, the decomposition process was less orderly than he had imagined - if he had imagined anything at all. Out of necessity, he converted a cupboard into a coffin, placed her rotting body inside and locked it in a room - the passages about this are simultaneously gruesome and hilarious. After two-and-a-half years, the police were nevertheless at the door and it became clear what had happened in that house. Van Casteren reconstructed the story in Mother's body: a sensitive and heartfelt book about a lurid, ultimate act of love.

Writer Joris van Casteren ©Stephan Vanfleteren

What chord did this story strike with you?

My family is from Brabant, so I immediately got an impression of the atmosphere and surroundings. It was bizarre anyway that this had happened, but especially in such a peaceful village with great social control, where things are still quite old-fashioned and you expect a certain geniality. Pete would have done it out of love for his mother. As I have not always had a good relationship with my mother, this immediately caught my imagination. Why would anyone want to keep their dead mother's body in the house? A brilliant story.'

You took the plunge and sought him out. How did he react?

'The house was so found because of the tree that had been cut down when his mother's coffin had been hoisted out of the house. It looked dingy. Through a piece of police tape, it suddenly dawned on me what had happened there: that in that house his mother had been decomposing. Behind the glass of the front door hung a note: 'Section 461 of the Penal Code applies here. Don't you have an appointment? You are not welcome!' I actually found it all quite frightening. I knocked on the door anyway. When I told him I was a writer of literary non-fiction and had heard his story, he let me in. He was curious about me, as I was curious about him.'

What did you find?

'The house looked like my grandmother's, with that old, worn-out furniture and the same kind of objects - although her house was actually very clean and tidy. It fascinated me that he lived in his parents' interior. It was as if I had gone back in time, entered a parallel universe. I found it intriguing to see how he stood in life. As a result, my book is also about how our world works and what we as a society consider 'normal'. After all, that is also just an agreement or assumption; you can also choose a completely different approach, as Pete did.'


'He turned out to be a clever man, articulate too. Soon I developed sympathy for him; he came across as a good man, not a dangerous madman. Pete also had a certain pride, despite his bizarre situation. He is basically a walking character. Someone you don't expect to actually exist.'

A book about what he did, did he think that was a good plan right away?

'More or less yes, because he himself had plans to write a book, because it bothered him immensely that people were talking about him in the village. So when I told him I was intrigued by his story, that I had heard he had done it out of love and wondered what exactly that was like, he immediately started telling me. I read letters and diaries, the complete police investigation file, I talked to friends, local residents and family members. So that was quite a lot, because through me he had to relive everything. Actually, I was a kind of therapist for him.'

What did he think beforehand: that body will decompose and stop stinking by itself?

'He was very naive and also in shock when his mother suddenly died. Even though she was 91, he just really couldn't imagine it. As a result, he was totally unprepared for what to do when the time came. But he couldn't break his promise to her either. He thought she would neatly mummify in bed. It was very hot when she died and he didn't expect the body to swell instead of dry up.'

Did she have that much power over him even after his death?

'He was their only child and she could not let go of him. Her biggest fear was that something would happen to her son; she was overly worried. She couldn't live without him. This went far: she was never enthusiastic about Pete's girlfriends, for example. Maybe that's partly why things didn't work out with him in love. He didn't dare to contradict her.'

His parents never required him to work either, right?

'Because his parents had had a hard time, they thought Pete didn't need to work and should just enjoy himself. He himself had all kinds of principled reasons not to work. I think many people will hate him for that reason, because in the Netherlands you cannot be two things: paedophile and benefit recipient, especially if you don't want to work. That is precisely why I find him interesting. He is a curious character with all sorts of contradictory principles, but whatever else you think about it, he is no bother to anyone.

Ultimate carer

'The question is whether society would be so much better off if he had gone into subsidised work, for example, because that also costs money. Besides: he took care of her all by himself until old age, which saved society a lot of money. Pete has been the ultimate carer.'

The judge thinks he did it out of self-interest.

'I disagree. All he did was what his mother asked him to do: take care of the cats and maintain the household as it was. I think the judges underestimate how strong her influence on him was. He didn't do strange things with the money he received; he didn't travel, didn't buy expensive things. The cats were eventually taken away from him. He finds that worst of all. Although he regrets all the hassle this caused him, he can live with it better than if he had broken his promise to his mother.'

Have you come to understand him?

'Look, of course it can't be what he did, hiding a dead body is a crime. But I do understand why he did it, yes. I hope the reader asks himself the same question: what would I have done in his situation? That who develops more and more understanding for him and the situation he found himself in, and maybe even hopes it won't be discovered. I want to show that his act was a kind of poetry: not only gruesome and perhaps reprehensible, but also very loving, and hilarious. How Pete handled it, I think, is actually a kind of art - which, of course, it wouldn't have been if it were murder. This is something so absurd that you can also look at it with admiration. His act could go straight into a museum, so to speak.'

Good to know Good to know

Mother's body by Joris van Casteren was published by De Bezige Bij, €19.99
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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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