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Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses
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Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

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by Bess Lovejoy
 

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A writer and researcher behind the bestselling Schott’s Almanac brings us a delightfully macabre collection of morbid curiosities: tales of what happened to famous people after they died.

IN THE LONG RUN, WE’RE ALL DEAD.

But for some of the most influential figures in history, death marked the start of a new adventure.

Overview

A writer and researcher behind the bestselling Schott’s Almanac brings us a delightfully macabre collection of morbid curiosities: tales of what happened to famous people after they died.

IN THE LONG RUN, WE’RE ALL DEAD.

But for some of the most influential figures in history, death marked the start of a new adventure.

The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated, and even filed away in a lawyer’s office. Their fingers, teeth, toes, arms, legs, skulls, hearts, lungs, and nether regions have embarked on voyages that crisscross the globe and stretch the imagination.

Counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s corpse. Einstein’s brain went on a cross-country road trip. And after Lord Horatio Nelson perished at Trafalgar, his sailors submerged him in brandy—which they drank.

From Mozart to Hitler, Rest in Pieces connects the lives of the famous dead to the hilarious and horrifying adventures of their corpses, and traces the evolution of cultural attitudes toward death.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Repeatedly illustrating with a hearseload of case studies that “final resting place” is a relative term, Lovejoy (a contributing writer for the Schott’s Almanac series) digs up a litany of strange-but-true tales of the postmortem adventures of all manner of famous corpses throughout history. In many cases, the cadavers or their skeletons were left intact, but others weren’t so lucky—Napoleon and Rasputin reportedly both lost their penises after death (and for the record, Dillinger’s is not at the Smithsonian). The fate of some bodies, such as those of Ted Williams, Lenin, Eva Perón, and Hunter S. Thompson, are fairly well-known, but readers will be surprised to learn the story behind the disappearance of Geronimo’s skull (as well as its alleged link to the Bush family) and the curious travels of Dorothy Parker’s remains (both the Algonquin Hotel and the New Yorker passed on hosting them until, via a bizarre and circuitous route, the NAACP stepped forward and claimed them). Buoyed by rigorous research and wry humor, Lovejoy’s compilation is sure to fuel more than a few cocktail party conversations. B&w illus. throughout. Agent: Jill Grinberg, Jill Grinberg Literary Management. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“A tasty, sharp, wonderfully unusual book. I enjoyed it like a jar of perfect dill pickles: when the mood strikes, nothing else will satisfy.”

“If really, we’re all sitting in the undertaker’s waiting-room, then Rest in Pieces is the perfect easy read, preparation for the moment when the nurse steps out of the shadows and quietly calls your name.”

“The world is awash with legendary body parts, from Einstein’s brain to Napoleon’s most intimate organ, and this wildly entertaining account proves that the fate of the grisly relics tells us a huge amount about history—and ourselves.”

“Deliciously morbid and delightfully macabre, Rest in Pieces is required reading for those of us who intend, one day, to die.”

"[A] historically beguiling, stranger-than-fiction compendium, which unearths the surprising fates of famous corpses, from Beethoven's to Eva Peron's."

“Marvelously macabre. . . . A fascinating foray into the way of all flesh.”

Elle
"[A] historically beguiling, stranger-than-fiction compendium, which unearths the surprising fates of famous corpses, from Beethoven's to Eva Peron's."
bestselling author of Gulp and Stiff - Mary Roach
“A tasty, sharp, wonderfully unusual book. I enjoyed it like a jar of perfect dill pickles: when the mood strikes, nothing else will satisfy.”
bestselling author of Skulls and The Professor and the Madman - Simon Winchester
“If really, we’re all sitting in the undertaker’s waiting-room, then Rest in Pieces is the perfect easy read, preparation for the moment when the nurse steps out of the shadows and quietly calls your name.”
author of Napoleon's Privates - Tony Perrottet
“The world is awash with legendary body parts, from Einstein’s brain to Napoleon’s most intimate organ, and this wildly entertaining account proves that the fate of the grisly relics tells us a huge amount about history—and ourselves.”
bestselling author of Schott's Original Miscellany - Ben Schott
“Deliciously morbid and delightfully macabre, Rest in Pieces is required reading for those of us who intend, one day, to die.”
Kirkus Reviews
Death is only the beginning in Schott's Almanac writer and researcher Lovejoy's marvelously macabre chronicle of some of history's most well-traveled cadavers. Thomas à Becket had it tough in life--having the top of his head lopped off, and all--but the poor guy didn't get much rest in the grave either. Neither did good 'ol St. Nick, Jesse James, Voltaire, Laurence Sterne or any of the other intriguing personalities profiled in this highly satisfying investigation into (real) life after death. While some public figures found their final resting places problematic due to the controversial lives they led, others found their notoriety made their decaying bones valuable sources of prestige for the local municipality. And the good citizens were willing to go to great lengths in order to get their towns on the map, even if it meant digging up famous teeth and skulls. Sometimes the tug of war raged for centuries. Even when they were beyond the reach of politics, celebrity stiffs still had to contend with the nefarious "Resurrection Men." Better known today as grave robbers or body snatchers, these shadowy figures were more than enthusiastic about plundering famous crypts. Lovejoy has a great time relating all their dubious exploits, but the ghoulish behavior is just one aspect of her graveside exploration. Death does strange things to people. In the case of Hunter S. Thompson, it compelled him to have his lifeless body shot out of a cannon to the tune of "Mr. Tambourine Man." Even more profound, Thompson had forged the kinds of relationships in life that would actually make his bizarre death wish become a reality. Somewhere, Thompson is thanking actor Johnny Depp for footing the bill for the cannon. The author invites readers to crack open all these coffins, curl up inside and stare death straight in the eye. The effect is oddly comforting. A fascinating foray into the way of all flesh.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451654981
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
03/12/2013
Pages:
329
Product dimensions:
4.88(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.11(d)

Read an Excerpt

Rest in Pieces

  • A corpse is always a problem—both for the living and for the dead. The problems are both conceptual and practical: a dead body hovers uneasily between the animate and the inanimate, the past and the future. Even ordinary deaths often lead to questions about who has control over the memory and estate of the deceased. Famous corpses are more complicated still: not just family and friends but the church, state, admirers, and enemies often lay claim to the famous dead.

    As a result, some of the most notable lives in history have had surprising postscripts. Famous corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. They’ve been used to found churches, cities, and even empires. Pieces of them have languished in libraries and museums, in coolers and filing cabinets, and in suitcases underneath beds. These stories often have something to say about what the dead meant to the living: it’s no coincidence that Descartes lost his skull, Einstein his brain, or Rasputin his penis (supposedly).

    This is a book about how the living have tried to solve the problems of the dead—or gotten them into even deeper trouble—by using their bodies in different ways. Many of those uses have been political, religious, or scientific. Alexander the Great’s bones established the Ptolemaic dynasty, the last in ancient Egypt, while the allegedly miraculous powers of relics from saints such as Thomas Becket made their bodies the hot commodities of the Middle Ages. The nineteenth-century pseudoscience of phrenology led to a rash of skull-stealing across Europe, which is how Haydn (to name but one example) lost his head. Criminals, too, have used corpses for their own ends, from the counterfeiters who tried to steal Abraham Lincoln’s coffin to the modern-day body snatchers who sold the bones of broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

    The living have also used the dead simply for the consolation of memory. Bodies can become mementos, as when Mary Shelley kept Percy Shelley’s heart, or when Greek independence fighters asked for Lord Byron’s lungs. And famous corpses sometimes become museum pieces symbolic of genius or notoriety, which is what happened to the skulls of Mozart and the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

    But the living don’t always override the wishes of the deceased. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham left explicit instructions about turning his body into a statue—stripped, stuffed, and mounted in a cabinet like an exotic bird. Musician Gram Parsons left an even weirder request—to have his body burned in the Mojave Desert—but that, too, was fulfilled, much to the chagrin of his family. Both Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson also went out the way they wanted: with a bang, and major parties.

    Strange as these stories are, this book intends to deliver more than a rich supply of inappropriate cocktail chatter. Although I don’t 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 postmortem journeys of controversial corpses (like that of Argentina’s first lady Eva Perón) often look like a game of hot potato, while those of widely revered geniuses, like Beethoven, are stories of carefully guarded treasure. These tales can tell us something about their subjects, and the times and places in which they lived. What does it say about Voltaire’s France that he was terrified of his bones ending up in the trash? What does it say about Restoration England that Oliver Cromwell was posthumously hanged? What does it say about America that Lee Harvey Oswald was exhumed to make sure he wasn’t a Russian spy?

    The stories in this book also sketch the evolution of our attitudes toward death and mourning. Not so long ago, 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. Putting the pieces back together might help us understand famous figures—and our own ancestors—a bit better.

    I’ve collected these strange stories with that goal in mind. But humans have been dying as long as we’ve been living, so a book like this could easily run to several volumes if I didn’t set some boundaries. For one thing, everyone in these pages was famous before becoming a corpse. This is not just a book about all the weird things that can happen to any dead body, fun as that might be.

    Secondly, while there are plenty of tall tales about famous bodies (my favorite being that Walt Disney’s frozen corpse is buried beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland), I’ve included only stories that could be documented. However, the history of the deceased is often murky territory, so where sources conflict, I’ve presented multiple variants of a story, or chosen to trust the most-respected source. For those who want to take their own stab at unraveling the mysteries, there’s an extensive bibliography at the back of the book.

    Because the stories in this book reflect the culture of their time, you’ll notice a lot of dead white men. 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.

    But while death troubles us, it also intrigues us. Death is the ultimate mystery, and contemplating it does us good. Kierkegaard said, “The thought of death is a good dancing partner.” The more you dance, the less you fear. This book is a form of exposure therapy, looking directly at the thing many of us most want to avoid. Spending time with famous dead bodies has made me worry a little less about the Grim Reaper. I hope that this book will do the same for you.

  • What People are Saying About This

    bestselling author of Gulp and Stiff - Mary Roach
    “A tasty, sharp, wonderfully unusual book. I enjoyed it like a jar of perfect dill pickles: when the mood strikes, nothing else will satisfy.”
    bestselling author of Skulls and The Professor and the Madman - Simon Winchester
    “If really, we’re all sitting in the undertaker’s waiting-room, then Rest in Pieces is the perfect easy read, preparation for the moment when the nurse steps out of the shadows and quietly calls your name.”
    bestselling author of Schott's Original Miscellany - Ben Schott
    “Deliciously morbid and delightfully macabre, Rest in Pieces is required reading for those of us who intend, one day, to die.”
    author of Napoleon's Privates - Tony Perrottet
    “The world is awash with legendary body parts, from Einstein’s brain to Napoleon’s most intimate organ, and this wildly entertaining account proves that the fate of the grisly relics tells us a huge amount about history—and ourselves.”

    Meet the Author

    Bess Lovejoy is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Brooklyn. She worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years, and her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

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    Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    CavemanDavid More than 1 year ago
    The curious fates of some famous corpses. In this collection, the author set two rules for who could be included.They had to be famous during their life.Something weird had to have happened to their remains.The entries range form Saint Nicholas to Hunter S. Thompson.There are tales of remains being turned into religious Relics.Famous skulls were often stolen for the pseudo-science of phrenology that was popular during Victorian times.Other cases involved how to deal with political corpses, bodies being stolen to be held for ramsom, or even parts of bodies being taken as souvenirs by loved ones and the curious.These stories of corpses cover a large amount of history and help to show changing opinions and practices when dealing with the dead. The entries are short, usually just a few pages, and give a brief history of the person's life and then tells the strange events that happened after their deaths.The entries are subdivided into categories such as scientific,last wishes, or collectible corpses.The entries are presented in an informative,entertaining,and straightforward manner without being gruesome or morbid. This would be a perfect book for anytime that you just have a few minutes to read like sitting in a waiting room, the bathroom,or when you just want to read a few minutes before going to sleep.It should have appeal to a wide range of readers, especially those who like odd bits of history. flag
    willardcat More than 1 year ago
    To some people this would be a chilling subject, but to those who have an interest in the ways of the past and even the present, this is an enjoyable and head shaking collection of stories. Really what were those people thinking?
    efm More than 1 year ago
    It is amazing what people have done to one another after they are dead!