Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Bess Lovejoy (2013)
Lovejoy gives us a list like no other: what happened to the mortal remains (bones, ashes, or otherwise) of historical figures, from Alexander the Great to Hunter S. Thompson. In brief chapters, we get the dirty details of grave robbing, mutilated bodies, missing bits, ambulatory urns, and unmarked graves.
Here’s a sampling: After his beheading in 1535, Thomas More’s body was destroyed but his head was set on a pike on London Bridge as an object lesson to anyone reluctant to side with Henry VIII. More’s daughter, Meg, was conveniently in a boat below the bridge when her father’s head was tossed into the Thames. She caught it in her lap and held on to it even in her own afterlife — she was evidently buried with it in her arms.
There was a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom. Mozart’s grave is unmarked, but a skull that might be his sits in an Austrian museum. Voltaire, Eva Perón, and John Barrymore moved about quite a bit after their deaths — sometimes as part of elaborate jokes (find out how Groucho Marx was actually caught dead in Burbank, California). Elvis’s burial site, in Memphis, Tennessee, could be the locus of a “full-blown religion”.
Lovejoy’s well-researched book (which includes an extensive bibliography for anyone needing even more gruesome details) features mostly white men. As Lovejoy notes,
The corpses of women and people of color have also suffered many misadventures, but because most of their owners weren’t famous, they often didn’t fit the framework of this book — not that this is a project anyone would clamor to be included in.
Perspective. It’s what we all need a good dose of from time to time.
Sounds a dead good read! Is there a discussion of charnel houses? It did surprise me to learn that, despite the medieval Christian belief in the physical resurrection of the body at the Last Trump, periodically graveyards were emptied of their remains and the bones burnt — what happened then to the charred pieces I have no idea but it must make it hard for St Michael and his minions to match up the fragments.
And on so many modern excavations of cemeteries with acidic soil the chances of recovering meaningful remains are almost zero, as we found with a dig on a deserted medieval church site in the 70s.
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Nothing about charnel houses, Chris, but lots about cemeteries being emptied, refilled, rearranged, or repurposed. Even burials inside churches weren’t guarantees of future identification. Milton was buried beneath the clerk’s desk at St Giles’ Cripplegate, causing problems later when the desk was moved!
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