A Fate Worse Than Death: The Perils of Being a Famous Corpse
Observatory (543 Union St., Brooklyn)
Most of us know what our afterlives are going to be like: eternity in the ground, or resting in an urn on some relative’s mantelpiece. If we’re lucky, our children might occasionally bring us flowers or a potted plant, and that’s about as interesting as things are going to get.
Not so the famous deceased. For millennia, they’ve been bought and sold, worshipped and reviled, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. They’ve been the star attractions at museums and churches, and used to found cemeteries, cities, even empires. Pieces of them have languished in libraries and universities, in coolers inside closets, and in suitcases underneath beds. For them, eternity has been anything but easy.
The more notable or notorious the body, the more likely it is that someone’s tried to disturb it. Consider the near-snatching of Abraham Lincoln, or the attempt on Elvis’s tomb. Then there’s Descartes, who is missing his head, and Galileo, who is spending eternity without his middle finger. Napoleon’s missing something a bit lower, as is the Russian mystic Rasputin, at least if the rumors are true. Meanwhile, Jesse James has had three graves, and may not have been in any of them, while it took a court case and an exhumation to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald was in his.
In this illustrated lecture, Bess Lovejoy will draw on her new book, Rest in Pieces, to discuss the many threats faced by famous corpses–from furta sacra (“holy theft” of saintly relics), to skull-stealing phrenologists, “Resurrection Men” digging up cadavers for medical schools, modern organ harvesters, the depredations of crazed fans, and much more.