5/16/2013 - It’s spring, and of course, a young man’s thoughts turn to … corpses.
In what seems the most bizarrely timed book release ever, Bess Lovejoy examines death and its aftermath in Rest in Pieces, right as the trees bud and the flowers bloom. The coffin-shaped book with its illustrations of grinning skeletons seems wildly out of season … or at least it did until the dispute arose over where to bury the Boston bomber.
After that, Lovejoy seems downright prescient, as her book is about what happens to famous bodies after their anima departs. The journey of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s remains would fit right in this discussion of “when strange things happen to dead people.”
On her website, Lovejoy is identified as a writer, editor and researcher who writes about “dead people and forgotten history,” and that pretty much sums this book up. It’s incontrovertible that the woman knows more about corpses than anybody else at the next dinner party to which you’ll be invited. How much you’ll enjoy her findings depends upon your appetite for reading about decay and putrification and how comfortable you are with death in general. The author proposes to make us down with that. “This book is a form of exposure therapy, looking at the very thing most of us want to avoid,” Lovejoy writes. “Spending time with famous dead bodies has made me worry a little less about the Grim Reaper.”
Maybe, but spend too much time Lovejoy’s appendix, titled “What happens to bodies after death,” and you may run screaming from the room. Readers enter this book, fascinated to learn about the attempted theft of Abraham Lincoln’s body, the stuffing of Jeremy Bentham and the traveling show that was Mozart’s skull. But then Lovejoy sucker-punches us with a horrifying description of what happens to the rest of us nobodies when we assume room temperature. Suffice it to say, there are maggots involved.
But Rest in Pieces is a soundly researched and deftly written book that teaches about not just the deaths but the lives of a range of historical figures. Lovejoy’s criteria for inclusion were that the deceased be well-known and that the circumstances of the death be well-documented, not tantalizing lore. Her range is vast, from St. Nicholas (the real one, dead for 1,600 years) to Osama bin Laden. While some of these stories, like bin Laden’s, are commonly known — Eva Peron and Albert Einstein among them — many are oddities lost in time, like Bentham’s. The British philosopher, best known as the founder of utilitarianism, once wrote about “further uses of the dead to the living,” which included, apparently, being used as home décor.
After Bentham’s death, a friend followed his wishes and dried out his skeleton and made it into something akin to a scarecrow, dressed in one of his favorite suits, stuffed with hay and straw, on which perched a wax head. “The resulting figure is eerily lifelike, and even features some of Bentham’s own hair, if not the glass eyes the philosopher used to carry in his pocket and told his friends were destined for his corpse.” Bentham — or what’s left of him — is still on display in a mahogany cabinet at the Anatomy Museum of the University College London.
But strange as that story is, there are others that rival it in weirdness. The Enlightenment writer Voltaire’s brain was cut out and stored in a jam jar, while his corpse was strapped upright in a carriage and driven to the monastery where he was buried.
The Algonquin Circle’s Dorothy Parker died alone, was cremated and had no one to claim her remains. Twenty years passed before she was mercifully interred at the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters. Her epitaph, worth waiting for, read, “Excuse my dust.”
And so it goes, for 283 pages. Thomas Hardy, Joseph Haydn, Galileo Galilei, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jesse James, Alexander the Great, Charlie Chapin and Hunter S. Thompson are among those whose final adventures are recounted. Two complaints: The thin, rectangular shape of the book is maddening, top-heavy and difficult to hold. It’s necessarily a two-handed book. An e-book is recommended. The second problem is not so easy to fix.
In her introduction, Lovejoy announces that she does not believe in either heaven or hell, an unnecessary revelation that injects a small poison into the narration that follows. One’s personal theology shouldn’t matter here, and it’s impossible to not see Lovejoy’s distant eye roll as she writes about the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth or the preserved tongue of St. Anthony. It’s unnecessary alienation, given that, in any given poll, three-quarters of Americans say they’re going to heaven. Anyway, if you’re going to be submerged in brandy after your death, like Lord Horatio Nelson, all talk of heaven and hell is subjective. B
— Jennifer Graham