Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses
Most people who die end up in the ground or as ashes to be interned or scattered. Most people. Some folks or parts of their bodies end up on the most fantastic journeys. This half width book by Bess Lovejoy is a ride along on the after death trips taken by many of Western history’s most famous and infamous individuals. The stories of what has befallen the remains of some people after death are surprising, sometimes funny, and, in some cases, downright disturbing. The author chronicles the postmortem adventures of Dante Alighieri, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig van Beethoven, Edgar Allen Poe (and his raven), Grigori Rasputin, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Parker, William Blake, and dozens of others. In some cases the whole remains are taken, in other cases (as in Einstein’s) just the “important parts” go on journeys, many times separated from the rest of the body forever. Some of the stories take place over hundreds of years and more often than not the remains of these famous people, who contributed immeasurably to the advancement (or devastation) of humanity, end up in the most mundane and ignoble of resting places (such as a mayonnaise jar on a dusty bookshelf).
Reading this tome underscores the absolute lack of control we all have in the end with our most prized and personal life possession, our mortal body. We live in our skin, held up by our bones for our whole lives and then, when we die, we rely on the living to carry out our last wishes with respect to our remains. There are no guarantees and when one is popular or famous, there is a greater chance that one’s remains may enjoy an extra-mortal adventure that is not part of our plans. One person not mentioned in the book is Steven P. Jobs. Jobs, the greatest industrialist and technology icon of the 20th century died in 2011 to an outpouring of emotion that swept the entire globe. The Jobs, family, known for their obsessive desire for privacy, buried the technologist in an unmarked grave in the Palo Alto’s Alta Mesa Cemetery. They cited concerns over the masses of venerators that would inevitably descend. I suspect there may also have been worries that Mr. Jobs might go on a final, unwanted, road trip.
The book is a fun read and the author even lists all her sources carefully, organized by person, so that readers, if so inclined, can continue the research. And it helps that many of the postmortem adventures and misadventures of the dead sound nearly as interesting as their lives.