What do Rasputin’s penis, Shelley’s heart and Einstein’s brain have in common?
They were all taken from their bodies after death and went on adventures of their own. Bess Lovejoy discusses these stories and others in her brand new book, Rest In Pieces, The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (Simon & Schuster). Given the subject matter, Digital Dying obviously had to chat with her. Bess spoke about the music of skulls, Mussolini’s grave, why last wishes can be a bummer and yes, the fate of Rasputin’s penis..
Why were some famous corpses severely abused and others not?
I think about the corpse as a contested object, a power struggle between politicians, family and friends. When you are a controversial figure there are going to be some complications after death. Especially with political corpses, people like Mussolini, who was hated by much of his populace. His corpse was abused after death. Or Eva Peron, she was beloved by her people so her corpse was embalmed and preserved. When the new regime came in they wanted her gone. But she was Catholic, they couldn’t just throw her away, so they put her in a secret grave. You see this a lot with political corpses, no one knows where the graves are so there’s no opportunity of them becoming pilgrimage sites. The neo-fascists still visit Mussolini’s grave once a year. They do their fascist salute and there are tourist shops where you can find little figures of Mussolini. I think that’s particularly horrifying.
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If you could keep a piece from one of the corpses you researched, what would it be?
I have a real thing for skulls, I think they are really, really fun. I love the story of Mozart’s skull. I love that it’s inscribed with a message: musa vetat mori, “the muse prevents death”. I love the idea of skull graffiti, a lot. I love the idea of the skull and music—there’s a story that if you get really close to Mozart’s skull you can hear music come out. Something about the skull seems to be more than a sum of its parts. You see a skull and it doesn’t just say dead body, like a femur bone does, it seems to be a symbol of mortality in general. Skulls are kind of smiling at you, or gaping at you, there is this wonderful sense of the abyss looking at you. To me there is this cackling bone-chilling delight around skulls. I think of the dance of death and medieval skeletons having a grand old time. I know phrenology is wrong, but there is something about looking at the skull and trying to understand the human being inside that makes sense to me on an emotional level. If a skull somehow got in my possession I would make sure it got to the proper authorities, but I would treasure it for a few moments.
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Tell me more about Rasputin’s penis, please?
Rasputin was a Russian mystic in the early 1900s, he was close with the royal family and in December of 1916 he was murdered. Rasputin had a daughter, Maria. She left Russia and did fascinating things, like work in the circus. In the ‘70s she hooked up with a writer named Patte Barham, who was writing a book about her life. Apparently, Patte was in Paris when a mysterious man appeared at the hotel and said to her, “I have something to show you.” He took her to the suburbs of Paris and showed her what he claimed was Rasputin’s penis.
The story was, when Rasputin was murdered his penis was flung into the corner of the room, where the item was discovered by the maid. She gave it to one of her relatives, who smuggled it to France. In Paris, a group of women would gather to worship the penis, happy to be in the presence of his relic. Patte told all of this to Maria, who was then determined to get the thing back. She did, but tests later showed it was actually a sea cucumber, not a penis. A few years ago this guy in St. Petersburg showed up and said, “I have Rasputin’s penis.” He put it on display in a proctology clinic, but I’ve seen pictures, it looks more like a horse penis.
Were you a morbid child?
For people looking to find morbidity, I was a very disappointing child. I was not the type of kid fascinated with dead animals, I was very much a girly girl. The one thing I was into was witchcraft, and magic. My parents were old hippies, they understood. I became interested in death in my mid-teens when I began reading philosophy about how people cope with their own mortality. I got interested in the philosophical side of dealing with infinitude. I was a goth teenager, so there was definitely lots of death in the music. Early on I saw a picture of the bone chandelier in Kutna Hora on a goth web forum. Later I visited with a 70 year old Kafka professor. He just hated the place, I found it very peaceful, very meditative. Since then I have sought out places that focus on mortality, places that for me produce that feeling of relaxation.
What do you plan to do with your own corpse after you die?
I’m leaning toward natural burial if that’s possible, or cremation. I was thinking about it this morning, though, I’d rather just do nothing with my body, put it in the ground. When you do something to your corpse you have to make sure your family and friends are on board, because you’re not going to be around to make sure it happens. I was recently reading about this comedian in Chicago who wanted to give his skull as a gift to this theater company so it could be used in a Shakespeare production, which is something lots of people try and do. But his wife couldn’t even find a doctor willing to take out the skull and clean it. So you can make up extravagant wishes for your corpse, but are you going to find people to carry them out?
Do you think at some point people will have a right to their corpse, just like we have a right to free speech?
Hopefully green burials and natural burials will become more possible. In a lot of places it’s not even legal. There’s an irrational idea that the corpse is incredibly toxic and full of disease and for most dead bodies that’s not necessarily the case. There are a lot of rules for things like burying people in your backyard and I think it’s time we look at some of those rules in a more modern light.
Since the book’s publication, has anyone surprised you with tales of corpses you didn’t know, or personal corpse stories of their own?
I had a book launch last week and a woman told me that she kept her husband’s ashes in an urn and she takes him around to different baseball fields and rests the urn for a few moments on home plate. I thought that was a sweet story. And just last night I got an email from someone with a list of three facts I had missed. The first was that Sir Isaac Newton’s penis was preserved. The second was that after John Wilkes Booth was shot he was coated with gold, tied to a pole and displayed at state fairs. The third was that Einstein left his brain to science. None of these things are true to my knowledge.
How is your book helping people cope with death?
Something that happened early on is people started telling me their own stories about death. I was at a gathering of female writers in Seattle about a year ago and one woman started talking about how her female partner passed away but was still hanging around. She would send her messages, like a newspaper suddenly appeared that happened to be the date of their first date. Everyone else was having cocktails and got really uncomfortable. My response was just to want to listen to her story. I felt useful, it made me think that we need more space where we can talk about grief openly, because people have a terrible, terrible time dealing with grief. And death is a fact of life, so it’s going to be a problem for a society if no one has any idea of how to provide support when a death affects someone’s life.