Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

  • Bess Lovejoy
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Victor W. Weedn
  • May 10, 2013

Sometimes death isn’t the end, as in these cases of eminent people through the ages whose remains got a second life.

In the introduction to her book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Bess Lovejoy writes that “some of the most notable lives in history have had surprising postscripts,” and she proves it in an eminently accessible and light-hearted way. Lovejoy explores the posthumous journeys of dozens of famous figures, from Alexander the Great to Osama bin Laden. 

Although the author, as she notes, could have filled volumes of stories, she chose to limit her cases — an impressive compendium of 50 in all — only to famous people whose stories could be documented, even if the documentation is not always conclusive. This book is not about how the celebrities died, but what happened afterward. More than mere parlor talk, these anecdotes trace cultural attitudes toward the dead over time. Despite the sensitive subject, the book is an easy read. The author calls it “a form of exposure therapy,” but the book is not ghastly, ghoulish, somber or morose—instead, it is just plain fun.  

Bodies can be dispatched in different ways. Lord Horatio Nelson was placed in a barrel of brandy (or rum) for shipment back from the Battle of Trafalgar. Some of the sailors siphoned off some of the alcohol for themselves, giving rise to the slogan “tapping the Admiral” for illicit drinking. Ted Williams was deep frozen in an attempt for immortality. Timothy Leary and Hunter Thompson both left with a bang and a party. The ashes of D. H. Lawrence, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame, may have been tossed out to sea, sipped down in a cup of tea, downed at a dinner party, scattered to the winds or mixed in concrete, depending upon which story you believe. 

The remains of Alexander the Great were used to found a dynasty. Egyptian morticians mummified him and then displayed the mummy in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon. Ptolemy, a boyhood friend and bodyguard, bribed the caretaker to take bring the body to Memphis. Julius Caesar and all Roman emperors from Augustus to Caligula visited his tomb. It was later lost, however, and is an archaeological mystery today. 

Money motivated the taking of several bodies and parts. Saint Nicholas’ remains were stolen to cash in on Crusader pilgrimages. The novelist Laurence Sterne was dug up by resurrectionists who robbed the grave and sold the body to Cambridge (his alma mater), which used it for anatomy classes until someone recognized him and fainted. 

Grave robbers were thwarted as they attempted to steal to steal the bodies of Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley. Whoever made off with the urn of the cremated Groucho Marx was successful, but later returned the urn and was never caught, although it is supposed that the robber was an employee who brought it home to Burbank, in defiance of Marx’s line: “I would never be caught dead in Burbank.” Alistair Cooke of “Masterpiece Theatre” was the victim of tissue thieves, who illegally sold his remains for profit, resulting in the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis in some of the unsuspecting recipients.  

Bodies can be sought for nonmonetary gain as well. The skulls of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Marquis de Sade and Joseph Haydn were all stolen for study by phrenologists. Beethoven’s skull was taken not by a phrenologist but by a skull collector. Einstein’s brain was taken by a researcher and, for years, stored in a jar in his closet. Napoleon Bonaparte’s private part was separately taken, possibly for inspiration, and ended up in Englewood, New Jersey. 

Sometimes bodies are lost and found. The remains of John Paul Jones were found in a Paris slum by an ardent admirer after more than a century and identified through circumstance, visual comparison to his congressional gold medal, initials on his cap and medical evidence. Dante’s remains were accidently found over three centuries later. Hitler moved the remains of Frederick the Great and his father to a salt mine, where presumably they would not be found by the Allies but were nonetheless discovered three weeks later by American troops. As the coffin saw the light of day, the British radio began to play “God Save the King” to celebrate the victory over Europe. 

I have had the opportunity and the honor of helping to help identify fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from various conflicts. It was surprising how the return of the remains to their loved ones for proper burial, even after decades, nearly always allowed reconnection to a kindred spirit and closure of emotional wounds that had not healed. Even with the humor that sometimes arises, death is serious stuff. How we manage remains, including those of the famous, touches upon those still living and, for some believers, perhaps upon the afterlife, and accordingly those remains must be treated with dignity and respect.  

In the end, we are left, as the author had hoped and as we should be, slightly less apprehensive of the grim reaper. Despite death’s deep seriousness, literature and life help us familiarize ourselves with death and, perhaps, even laugh about it.  

Victor W. Weedn, M.D., J.D., is a professor and chair of the George Washington University, Department of Forensic Sciences. As a forensic pathologist, he has had plenty of experience with dead bodies.  

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