What happens to our bodies after we die? We all know we start to decompose, and most of us will wind up at Ye Olde Funeral Home for viewings before being buried six feet under in a beautiful cemetery with a gorgeous headstone. But that’s not always the case, especially if you happen to be a person of wealth and fame. The remains of the famous and infamous have met with some weird, unsettling ends: from mass graves to dismembered genitalia, trips around the world to booby-trapped tombs.

Bess Lovejoy is an editor at mental_floss, and the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, among many other achievements. We have talked to her before about death and the death-positive community, but we did not discuss her book; which is a shame, because it is fantastic.

Filled with crafty witticisms and historical insight, Rest in Pieces will make you laugh, cringe, maybe gag, and then immediately call your attorney to begin estate planning on the off-chance you become rich and famous.

Dirge: We have talked to you before about your role in the Death Positive community, but we didn’t talk much about Rest in Pieces. You mentioned “stumbling upon” the idea, but where did it come from? Why write about famous corpses in the first place?
Bess Lovejoy: I came to the idea while I was working on a book series called Schott’s Almanac, which involved spending a lot of time reading newspapers and the internet looking for ideas. A colleague had the idea to do a list in the book of the ways artists wanted to use their own bodies after death, and I was working on it when I read an article about the painter Francis Bacon. Supposedly, he once said: “when I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” And after he died, a photographer friend did indeed take a photo of him in a plastic bag at the morgue (though not in the gutter), and afterwards made it into an art piece that ended up being used to help raise money for Bacon’s favorite club in London.

Anyway, that article got me curious about the last wishes of famous artists and writers I admired. But as I started researching, I realized that often these last wishes aren’t carried out, and the misadventures that happen along the way are where the real story begins. I found a lot of delight in looking into these stories, because many of them are just so absurd, and I decided I really wanted to share them with readers in my own book.
What advances or changes have you seen in the Death Positive community since our last interview?
There’s been big strides in the visibility of the conversation, at least in the media. I see the hashtag a lot more on Twitter. The NYT has a whole blog devoted to end-of-life issues. Atul Guwande’s work on the issue has gotten a lot of attention, as has Caitlin Doughty.
I’m guessing Caitlin has a lot to do with getting that particular phrase–“death positive”–off the ground. I’d never heard it before she started using it. Younger people now seem more comfortable declaring serious interest in the subject, and I’m sure that’s partly because of her.
Rest in Pieces isn’t set chronologically from famous deaths in the past until now and how the whole treatment of corpses has changed over time. Was that a conscious decision from the beginning or did it happen organically while writing?
Deciding how to organize the book was one of the most difficult choices I made during the whole process. Originally I started out writing chronologically (which means I spent way too long on Alexander the Great!). But I decided it was more interesting to move backward and forward in time, in part so I’d have the freedom to vary stories that seemed lighter or darker, but also so that I could group stories to tease out trends, evolutions, or similarities over time.

I wanted to be able to connect phrenology and neuroscience, for example, and the bodysnatching of the Industrial Revolution and the 21st century; I also wanted to be able to group all the political corpses, from Alexander the Great to Osama bin Laden, together, because the concerns about creating a political shrine manifest in interesting ways over time. (Sometimes people want to play up the shrine created around a deceased political person, and sometimes to avoid its creation in the first place–the determining factor is whether the person’s regime survives their death, and who gets their hands on the corpse. Contrast the pomp given Alexander the Great with the secret watery grave given to Osama bin Laden, for instance.)
Being comfortable talking about death does not mean people are comfortable talking about corpses or what happens to the physical body after death. Do you still run into discomfort talking about corpses with others?
Less than you might expect. But I remember talking to an elderly couple at a book fair in Seattle while I was still writing the project, and while the man was very interested, the woman started slowly backing away with a horrified look on her face. I forget that people can have that reaction just from a conversation.
Bess Lovejoy. Photo courtesy of Bess Lovejoy.
It seems as if people used to be way more comfortable being around dead bodies (and digging them up); is there a distinct moment when the shift occurred to the more fearful stance we have about them today?
There isn’t one moment. And attitudes to death vary widely in this country, in part because of our diversity of ethnic groups. Talking to the average Mexican about death will be different from the average Upper West Side Protestant, for instance. I think it’s most accurate to say that we have a distanced attitude to death. That attitude evolved out of several trends that probably have to do with the Industrial Revolution—we’re not on farms killing our own animals, we’ve medicalized death with the hospital industry, and we’ve professionalized death with the funeral industry.

There’s also a shift in emotional attitudes—the mass death of WWI made public mourning less practical and fashionable, and in general we’ve moved to a more “cool” emotional style, where displays of emotion (like those around death) are often seen as laughable or shameful. I’m borrowing from the English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer here. He’s got a great essay where he talks about how sex was the big no-no for the Victorians, and in the 20th century we saw similar attitudes crop up around death. Hopefully, in the 21st century, we can find something else to make taboo.
Funeral preparations, burial locations, and estate settlement are huge issues for most of the famous corpses in the book. Did writing this book change your perspective on estate planning or will-writing? Did it make you more organized for your own funereal preparations?
It reminded me that I’ve really got to make a will, which I still haven’t done (shamefully). But at least I’ve had good conversations with my loved ones about what I want, and writing the book encouraged me to ask other family members what they want.
Of all the crazy things to happen to the corpses in the book, which one is your favorite? Did any of them frighten you?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but maybe Eva Peron (that crazy embalmer! the secret burial!) and Rasputin (that old woman in the apartment! the sea cucumber!).
Were there any stories that didn’t make it into the book you’d like to recount for our readers?
I think most of them made it into the book! Although the theft of F.W. Murnau’s skull out of his grave in Germany—no one’s sure exactly why—would make a great addition if I ever do a sequel.

You can follow Bess on Twitter. And please, read this book. Your corpse will thank you.
Nicole Moore

Nicole Moore

Managing Editor at Dirge Magazine
Nicole has a Master's in English Literature, and is best described as a "sparkly rainbow magical dark feminist cat mermaid unicorn nerd witch." Simple, right? You can stalk her on Twitter and Instagram, or read her personal blog, you floozy.
Nicole Moore
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