Colin Dickey has written about the history of cemeteries, library bone collections and the afterlives of the saints.
Digital Dying recently spoke with him about his latest book, “Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius”, a series of swashbuckling tales describing what happened to the skulls of artistic geniuses like Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven.
What’s one of the stranger stories from “Cranioklepty”?
Joseph Haydn had only been dead five days when his head was stolen by a friend of his. He broke into the graveyard, dug up the grave and decapitated him. It took a good hour to open the coffin and cut off the head, which was still greenish. He got back into the carriage with it and the smell was so overwhelming he threw up. I don’t think he saw himself as grotesque or morbid. He did it more to honor his friend, although it was still very much illegal. When the cops came to his house he shoved the skull under his mattress and had his wife lie in bed, presuming they would be civil with her and not ask a woman to get out of bed. The skull passed hands a number of times. In 1955, it was finally reburied.
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When was the peak time for skull stealing?
All the cases I look at are between 1800 and 1840. You can trace many of them to phrenology, which began as a science in 1790, the idea that you can determine a person’s personality traits and mental faculties by the bumps on their skull. This is why people were digging up skulls of artistic geniuses like Goya and Haydn. By the second half of the nineteenth century most people had abandoned phrenology, but not everyone. Walt Whitman still believed in it, even though he knew he was being old-fashioned.
Were there other reasons skulls were being stolen during this time?
Phrenology explains a lot but there was a corresponding desire to preserve the better parts of these great men. People collected skulls almost as a means of preserving the legacy and preserving the genius. Beethoven’s whole head was taken because people wanted to save it. In the end most of the head went back in the ground but two skull fragments were kept, four inch long pieces of bones. From a phrenology standpoint it was useless, but the preservation of these pieces of bone was important.
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We still honor artistic geniuses, why aren’t people stealing their skulls today?
You do have people selling what they purport to be viable pieces of Elvis’s skull. And there is a gambling site that bought a lock of Michael Jackson’s hair so you can play roulette with it, though who knows why that would make you better at roulette. But in the nineteenth century we had a much closer relationship with the dead body. Bodies were in the parlor room for viewing, and you spent longer with the body before it went into the ground. I don’t think the desire to have a skull or body part of a famous person has diminished, I just think people today are much less comfortable with the physical remains of the body.
Did you spend a lot of time digging around cemeteries in reporting this book?
I wish I had spent more time digging around in cemeteries, most of it was book research. The one time I went to a cemetery here in Los Angeles, the Rose Hills Cemetery, my car got broken into. That might have put a damper on my desire to poke around in neglected places without lighting. Though in Buenos Aires I spent a lot of time in La Recoleta Cemetery. It is just insanely opulent and beautiful, one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve even been in. In California, I spent a lot of time in Colma. Pretty much all of the people from San Francisco are buried there, because you can’t be buried within the city of San Francisco. About 80 percent of the town of Colma is cemeteries. Their motto is, “It’s great to be alive in Colma.”
Explain how early cemeteries are linked with certain architectural trends?
We tend to think we build for the living but we also build for the dead. Think about what stood as the tallest building in the world for 3,000 years, the Pyramids of Giza, which were mausoleums. They were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. A second mausoleum was on the list too, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The building regularly cited as the most beautiful in the world is the Taj Mahal, another tomb. From when we first started building things we have had this need to memorialize people with architecture. I would make the somewhat tenuous case that architecture is bound with the dead as much as the living.
How has the relationship between the cemetery and the city changed over time?
Death never changes but the way in which we approach death changes. We reinvent it every generation. One generation thinks it’s really important to have a cemetery in a parish church, which basically occurred until the late 18th century. Then cities got so big it became untenable. Cemeteries became these vast parks outside the city, in Brooklyn, or Colma. The sense I have is that we are shifting again. The current backlash against the funeral industry is driven in no small part by the fact that after a death the insurance people show up and charge you thousands of dollars to do this absurd spectacle that seems out of your hands. The move towards green cemeteries and green burials all reflects different rituals being created so people can feel like they have control over what happens to them and their loved ones. I don’t know exactly where we’re headed but I do think that in the next ten years or so there will be increasingly dramatic ways in how we deal with the dead, because the ways we’ve been doing it for the past half century don’t seem to make sense anymore.
One last thing, you recently wrote about something that really struck me as strange, the idea of a skyscraper cemetery with individual tombs you can call on the phone!?
This South Korean architect wanted to build a sort of skyscraper for the dead. You were given a phone number for your loved one’s plot and every time you called their number a little light would blink on. Ideally you would be able to see it from your apartment or wherever you were, so you would have this virtual connection. It was going to be in Seoul. But this was just a proposal, I don’t think people went for it.