Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy delves into the macabre in a most concrete way: through carefully researched detail of physical bodies. Of course, there are oodles of famous corpses – how to pick the ones that made their way into this book? Lovejoy curates a variety of characters according to how the living handled them, and the more crime-ridden, disturbing, and odd stories to be found, the better.
Rest in Pieces unfolds in nine sections: Saints and Sinners, Science and Medicine, Crime and Punishment, (Un)solved Mysteries, Body Politics, Lost and Found, Collectible Corpses, Love and Devotion, and finally, Last Wishes. Yet one of the most fascinating sections is Lovejoy’s introduction. It is here that she reveals her personal manifesto for diving into such a project as this; her “death theory,” if you will. She allows that while death “troubles us, it also intrigues us. Death is the ultimate mystery, and contemplating it does us good.”
There are certainly some atrocious fates that have befallen famous dead folk – and contemplating these fates reveals some of the darkest parts of human nature. While I could highlight any of the fifty-one corpses detailed in the book, the case of Ted Williams, included in the ‘Science and Medicine’ section, is particularly interesting because it speaks directly to our culture’s failure to recognize death. We are obsessed with immortality, and it’s toxic.
The former Boston Red Sox player desired to be cremated, yet his wishes, however transparent, were not carried out. Instead, William’s son wanted him to have a chance at eternal life, and brought his corpse to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, a place that boasts of turning corpses into corpsicles so that when science catches up to mortality, you might one day be awakened. If this reads as science fiction, it’s because it is science fiction; there is no science to support Alcor’s practice of freezing bodies until the time is ripe for their resurrection. And that’s not where the weirdness ends. The former chief operating officer of Alcor, Larry Johnson, revealed the company’s penchant for mistreating its bodies in his tell-all: “Little gray chunks of Ted’s head flew off, peppering the wall, skittering across the floor and sliding under the machinery,” he wrote, explaining how Alcor employees “used a monkey wrench to try to pry Williams’s head from its pedestal.”
Lovejoy’s analysis of the fates and mythos behind each of the corpses in her book is chock-full with intimate details such as these. If corpses weren’t being frozen, they were being cut up and doled out, taken home in biscuit tins and jam jars, the former in the case of Thomas Hardy’s heart and the latter in the case of Voltaire’s brain. Sometimes these death mementos were taken into possession to feel closer to one’s departed loved one, such as Mary Shelley holding onto Percy Shelley’s heart until her own death – yet even this romantic gesture was not gained without trauma, for Leigh Hunt desired the heart of his dear friend and felt he deserved it more than Mary. Other times it was believed that certain corpses had preternatural powers. Such was the case of Thomas Becket: a blind woman took a rag drenched in his blood to her eyes and supposedly regained her sight.
The worst, and often most gruesome, of the posthumous fates mentioned in Rest in Pieces fell to those who had transgressed the greater good. Though Lovejoy maintains that she does not believe in heaven or hell, “it’s hard to deny that how you live often has something to do with what happens after you die.” The best example of this is Benito Mussolini, featured in the ‘Body Politics’ section. His corpse was infamously ravaged by the people he oppressed. Though the dead will never re-awaken, their legacies are powerful. In the cases of transgressors such as Mussolini, their physical remains were desecrated, out of the substantial fear that such horrors could return in the form of new adherents, who would memorialize the decedent’s commitment to atrocity.
It is difficult to confront death, let alone dead bodies, which are visceral reminders of the fate that awaits us. But it seems we used to be better at dealing with this. Many of the folks who Lovejoy includes in her book died at least 100 years ago, and this commonality is not an accident. Though the treatment of their corpses, and the keeping of body parts removed from their corpses, seems strange to us by today’s anesthetized standards, perhaps our ancestors were onto something. “Not so long ago,” Lovejoy tells us, “death was both more familiar and more sacred, and it wasn’t so strange to keep a famous skull around, or to wear a ring showing off some strands of a dead friend’s hair. These attitudes have faded, but their shadows remain.”
Lovejoy is one of the people who is aiming to bring these shadows back into the light. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death, a group composed of funerary professionals, artists, such as herself, and academics, whose goal is to bring death to the masses in order to make us mere mortals less afraid of our eternal fates.
I was able to attend my first Death Salon earlier this month, held at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia – an event put on by the Order that explores the finer aspects of death by sharing expert knowledge and art. Bess Lovejoy was a featured speaker, and she discussed the fates of corpses much different from the ones in her book – forgotten corpses, specifically, the stillborns and prisoners buried at Hart Island. It’s a desolate place where families are still unable to visit the graves of their loved ones, and Lovejoy has written about its very archaic situation and its hopeful, albeit slow, promise of reform.