From venerated saint relics to improbable travels of famous skulls, we know well that death is not always the end for the journeys of the human body. Recently, Seattle-based writer Bess Lovejoy published Rest in Pieces on “the curious fates of famous corpses,” and tonight she’s joining San Francisoc-based musician Jill Tracy for “A Fate Worse Than Death,” an event that’s part of Atlas Obscura’s ongoing salon series at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco.
We asked Lovejoy a few questions about her research into the roaming cadavers of the famous, as well as our evolving perception of death and the potential fate of her own bones, and included some of the places in the Atlas that appear in her book (you can see a complete map of the Rest in Pieces locales here):
Your book Rest in Pieces chronicles the curious afterlives of the corpses of around 50 notable people. What first drew you to this subject of death not really being the end for these famous bodies?
I used to work on a series of non-fiction books called Schott’s Almanac, where we spent a lot of time reading the news to try to find interesting ideas for stories. In December 2008, I read two news articles, one right after each other, about famous last wishes. One was about the pianist André Tchaikowsky, who had willed his skull to London’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company for use in Hamlet. The other was about the painter Francis Bacon, who had once said, “When I’m dead put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” After his death, a photographer friend took a photo of his corpse and turned it into a piece of art, which created a bit of an uproar in the British press.
Both stories got me wondering about famous last wishes, and whether it would be interesting to do a book or some other kind of research project collecting them. But once I started the research, I realized the most interesting stories were not what people wanted to happen, but what did happen. There were just so many wonderful stories, with larger-than-life characters and bizarre anecdotes, and I could see it had great book potential.
I’ve always been interested in death — not so much the physical side of things, the blood and guts — but how humans deal with their impending mortality. How we make sense of our own deaths and the deaths of others. Finitude. I like writing about how people deal with the corpse, because in a way it’s an examination of how people have dealt with the idea of mortality. And it helps me confront my own mortality.
Einstein’s brain in the Mütter Museum
Your book is full of surprising and unsettling stories, whether it’s the cross-country trip Einstein’s brain took or the skull of René Descartes that became a museum exhibition. Is there any one that stands out to you as a favorite?
I got attached to my stories while writing them, and I thought of each corpse as my own weird little child. So I don’t really have favorites. But people often ask about the story of Rasputin, who supposedly refused to die (despite being poisoned and shot), and whose penis may have been cut off by one of the nobles who murdered him. That object certainly has a curious story, and made it all the way to Paris, despite later being shown to be a sea cucumber. It’s hard to top that tale.
Part of your book is about the development of our society’s relationship with death and the decay of our bodies. How is this reflected in the wandering pieces of corpses?
I find it interesting that at certain times in history bodies are thought of as subjects for collection and veneration, whereas now we do everything we can to get rid of the corpse as quickly as possible. The Catholic attitude toward saints and relics — where the body parts of saints are venerated as points of contact with the divine, capable of producing miracles — contributed to a lot of posthumous wandering, with relics being stolen and traded around Europe.
My favorite anecdote there is about the two churches that each claimed to have the head of St. John the Baptist, and when a traveler asked how that was possible, one church said “We have his skull from when he was a boy,” and the other said, “We have his skull from when he was a man.”
That saintly attitude definitely contributed to the way parts of secular saints like Galileo, Descartes, and Dante were treated. But there are other cultural movements — Romanticism, phrenology — that also imbue body parts with a great deal of meaning, and contribute to a lot of bodies travelling after death.
Did your research take you to any unexpected places?
Mostly only in my own mind. I wrote the majority of the book in the writers’ room at the Seattle Public Library, desperately wishing the tourists on the observation deck above me would shut up. That said, I took a trip to Paris and London with my dad in 2010, before I started writing the book, but when I already begun the research.
We visited Père Lachaise, where Molière is supposedly buried (alongside many other famous people), as well as the church that is supposed to have what’s left of Descartes, and the Pantheon, where Voltaire is buried. But my big regret is that I didn’t go to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where Voltaire’s heart is supposed to be.
Do you hope for any posthumous wandering for yourself?
It would be rather fitting to leave my skull to someone. Maybe if my nephew ends up morbid, he can have it. He’s two, so it’s hard to tell now. But I have hope he’ll take after me.
MINI ATLAS OF PIECES OF THE FAMOUS DEAD: