Have you ever thought about the afterlife of–after life? Generally, we tend to think of the funeral as the end of even the most illustrious of personages–but for some, the journey is just getting started. Not long ago, I featured Tessa Harris’s post about Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant whose remains are still on display… and I’ve also hosted Charlotte Mathieson’s work on traveling bodies. These works (and that of Chirurgeon’s Apprentice and Dose contributor Lindsey Fitzharris) testify to the fact that the body may be a strange commodity, bought, sold, worshipped, worn, disinterred and displayed. The soul’s whereabouts in the grim dark or the great beyond may be a mystery, but the body–that sinuous wrapper, that mortal coil, that hundred-odd pounds of fresh and bone–can be tracked. Today, I am pleased to present Bess Lovejoy, fellow “Deathxpert” and author of a “ground-breaking” book: Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses.
Bess Lovejoy is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Seattle. She writes about dead people, forgotten history, and sometimes art, literature, and science. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, The Boston Globe, The Stranger, and other publications. She worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years. Her book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses is out now from Simon & Schuster. She blogs at besslovejoy.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter: @besslovejoy.
From Alexander the Great (whose corpse founded a dynasty) to René Descartes (whose skull was separated from his body) and Dorothy Parker (whose ashes were hidden in a filing cabinet for more than a decade), some of the most influential and interesting people in history have journeyed on posthumous adventures none of them could have predicted.
Rest in Pieces catalogs stories from the age of antiquity to today, tracing the evolution of cultural attitudes toward death and connecting the lives of the famous deceased to the hilarious and horrifying adventures of their corpses. Jim Thorpe’s body renamed a city in Pennsylvania. Einstein’s brain took a road trip across America. And Osama bin Laden’s corpse was lost among the waves—until a California treasure hunter claimed to find it.
More than a rich and satisfying source of inappropriate cocktail chatter, Rest in Pieces uses its novel perspective to reveal the lives of the world’s most interesting people, and to help us understand the Grim Reaper a little better.
Thank you, Bess, for joining us!
1. How did you become interested in the corporeal (and often quite “lively”) afterlives of famous bodies? Are you equally interested in the ramblings of less illustrious remains?
From 2005 until 2010 I worked on a non-fiction series called Schott’s Almanac (also called Schott’s Miscellany), where we spent a lot of time skimming the news for interesting stories to write about. The idea for the book occurred to me in December 2008, after a co-worker sent me a Guardian article about the notoriously macabre painter Francis Bacon. According to the article, before Bacon died in 1992 he told a barman at his favorite club in London, “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” Bacon never did end up in the gutter, but after he died in Spain a friend photographed him inside a plastic bag at the morgue. The photo became the centerpiece of a show used to raise money for the club.
Days after the article about Bacon, the BBC published a piece about the pianist André Tchaikowsky. Before his death in 1982, Tchaikowsky willed his skull to London’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company for use in Hamlet. In 2008 Tchaikowsky got his wish, and his skull was used in dozens of performances in Stratford-upon-Avon.
At Schott’s, used the articles to write a short piece about famous corpses in art. But both articles got me wondering about the last wishes of famous people, particularly those whose works I’d read or admired. After some investigation, I began to discover that the most interesting stories were not about what people wanted to happen after they died, but what did happen. People change their minds about last wishes many times over the course of their lives, and often their wishes aren’t carried out. I started to think of the stories of famous corpses as adventures, or journeys, that might be worth combining into a book. I was excited about taking on a giant research project.
Before I wrote the book, I wouldn’t have been particularly interested in the fate of non-illustrious corpses. Well, not any more than the usual recovered goth girl, anyway. But I have always had a strong interest in mortality, how people cope with their finitude and the finitude of others. These days, I also find myself interested in the fate of remains in museums, particularly sideshow performers, like Sarah Baartman (the “Hottentot Venus”), Julia Pastrana, and “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne. The gaze trained on them — a mixture of morbid fascination, sympathy, pity, titillation — intrigues me, as does the question of what to do with their bodies now. Have we learned all we can? Do the dead deserve to have their wishes carried out, or does the scientific imperative trump that? Is there any scientific imperative left in these cases?
2. I study the dissolution of self from the 18th century through the present, the unsteady boundaries of personhood. As a result, I am fascinated by your work, but do you find that most people are excited or distressed by the fate of these traveling bodies (and body parts)? What do you make of these responses?
Most people that actually take the trouble to talk to me are very intrigued. However, while I try not to read my reviews, I’ve noticed that a couple of people reviewing the book were disturbed by the material. I think it’s pretty clear from the cover what the book is about, so if it disturbs you, don’t read it. Or, question your own response. What about it is so disturbing? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be disturbing, but following that sense of discomfort might lead to some interesting revelations about our own potential corpse-ness.
I’m also intrigued by the gendered responses. Of course, I have my morbid sisterhood online. But when I mention the book to total strangers, it’s the men (particularly older men) who are very intrigued, while some “normal”-type women are put off. I suppose this is because corpses seem “gross,” and women are taught not to like “gross” things. But bones are beautiful!
3. Different cultures have very different practices concerning corpses–I’m sure you have encountered interesting stories in your research. Is there anything that hasn’t appeared in the book that nonetheless intrigues you? Any plans for future work?
This book has so many byways and dark alleys that I could spend forever exploring. I tried to make it a taster, so that those who are interested in some of the larger themes–relics, or phrenology, say–can go off and explore. As for things that intrigue me that aren’t in the book, just last night I was reading about the Neapolitan skull cult on Morbid Anatomy, and the group of old women in Naples who “adopt” certain skulls in an underground ossuary: http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.com/2013/03/cimitero-delle-fontanelle-and.html. I’ve also read of some similar practices in Bolivia. This kind of direct interaction with the corpse interests me, because it’s so far from the American/Canadian experience.
As for future work, I’m considering a book about famous widows in history. But writing about death is hard, and I’m weighing whether I want to spend time around all that grief, as well as whether I find the subject interesting enough to spend several years on it.
4. Since we are on the subject of remains–if you had to choose a fate for your own, what would it be? Your favorite parting words or epitaph?
I’ve never thought about my epitaph, although I do like the words inscribed on Mozart’s skull, which say: “musa vetat mori,” roughly translated as “the muse prevents death.” I think of this as being about the idea that creative work transcends death. Which is just another way of humans trying to make themselves immortal, but hey. As for my own remains, just let me decay in the ground. Nothing fancy. Plant a tree nearby or something. I like the idea of going back into the ground to nourish it, and certainly don’t want to hang around on someone’s mantelpiece or attic.