Deathly reading: Rest in Pieces

Book cover

Book cover

There are countless examples of people who have become far more famous after their deaths than they ever were in life. Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau and Galileo Galilei are just a few who became (more) famous for their respective work even though they experienced very little of this fame while they were actually alive enough to benefit from it.

These names are just a handful of the various famous folk that are covered in Bess Lovejoy‘s excellent book Rest in Pieces: the curious fates of famous corpses which has just been published in the UK by Duckworth. The US version of the book has been hugely successful and it is easy to see why, especially with the exciting new addition of Richard III’s car park resting place tale.

Lovejoy has made the clever choice of categorising the various people that she writes about into themed chapters, ranging from the sensible Science and Medicine to the more intriguing Collectable Corpses. Each section is beautifully divided and illustrated by the utterly brilliant Mark Stutzman, who also did the book cover and inside covers, giving a wonderful overall reading experience.

You can dip in and out of this book quite easily, but Lovejoy’s engaging writing means that it is hard not to read the book in almost one sitting due to the inability to tear oneself away from finding out more astounding and truly peculiar facts about famous people that many will have had heard of, as well as those more niche individuals who still had fascinating tales to tell. Lovejoy is especially impressive with her ‘Body Politics’ chapter that covers not only Adolf Hitler and Eva Peron, but the more recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. When asked about this particular section, Lovejoy explained that:

“…if you’re going to talk about the history of famous corpses you have to take the bad as well as the good… the corpses of villains, like Bin Laden or Hitler, were actually some of the most interesting to me. I was interested to see how political regimes will go to some length to make sure there’s no shrine, no place for worshippers to gather, where the flame of their memory can be kept alive.” (Deathly Ponderings author interview)

Rest in Pieces is not just about the notoriously famous, it also covers those who had colourful lives and whose memory reflects that life such as Hunter S. Thompson, Lord Byron and LSD-advocate Timothy Leary. With additional tales of skulls being stolen by phrenologists, different body parts travelling across the globe, bodies going missing and remains being found again by pure chance, the heady and often confusing world of the dead is conveyed to the reader by Lovejoy through excellent research, writing and an obvious passion for finding out the truth to some of the more bizarre mysteries that surround certain peoples’ remains.

If you want to read about some of the most famous writers, philosophers, actors, scientists, politicians, composers and other historical figures, then this is the book for you. Not only will you discover new facts about these individuals’ lives, but you will also explore the often unknown and untold fates of their remains after they died. Often, these tales are far more fascinating than any biography of a person’s life ever could be and it sheds some light on the cult status and often crazy lengths that people have gone to to idolise, venerate and study the earthly remains of some of the great names of history.

Author interview: Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

Author Bess Lovejoy

We were delighted to be contacted by Bess Lovejoy’s publisher (Duckworth Publishers) to ask if we would be interested in interviewing her ahead of the UK release of her excellent book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses on 25th September 2014. Of course we said yes! I’ve already read the US edition of the book and know it to be a fantastic read. I will post a review of the book in the next few days so watch this space.

So we sat down with Bess (albeit at different computers situtated at different geographical locations halfway around the world from each other) and got down to business.

DP: Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to answer some of our questions. So you have a new book coming out in the UK called Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses and it is a fascinating read. What inspired you to write this book?

Bess: I used to work on a series called Schott’s Almanac, and we would spend a lot of time reading the news to try to find things to write about. In December 2008, a co-worker sent me a Guardian article about the painter Francis Bacon that really piqued my interest. According to the article, before Bacon died in 1992 he told a barman at the Colony Room Club in Soho, “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” Bacon never actually ended in the gutter, but after he died a friend photographed him inside a plastic bag at the morgue. The photo became the centerpiece of a show used to raise money for the Colony Room Club, and that caused a bit of an uproar about bad taste, etc. A few days after that, the BBC ran articles about the pianist André Tchaikowsky, who willed his skull to the Royal Shakespearean Theatre Company, and people got very upset about that too. It got me wondering about the last wishes of famous people, particularly artistic people whom I admired. I started looking into those stories and quickly realized the most interesting stories were not about what people wanted to happen after they died, but what did happen. And then I realized that no one had collected a whole bunch of those stories in one book before.

DP: Doing the research for the book must have involved a lot of work and chasing down obscure references. How did you find the whole process and would you do it all again?

Bess: I loved it. I’m a research nerd, and finding out some of the facts in the book just filled me with sheer joy. I wrote most of it on the tenth floor of the Seattle Public Library, in their writers’ room, which was really a wonderful space. It was right above the floor for biographies, which was well-stocked, and I would start a lot of my research with whatever seemed to be the most authoritative biography of the individual in question and then follow their sources. If I had another idea for a project that I thought I would enjoy as much, and that I thought would be successful enough that I could convince publishers to back it, I would definitely do it again. Writing a book is gruelling and exhausting and lonely, but the day it came out was one of the happiest of my life.

DP: There are some truly wonderful and bizarre characters in this book, my personal favourite being Emanuel Swedenborg and his mysterious travelling skull. Which historical figure did you enjoy writing about the most?

Bess: Swedenborg was fun, although his story is extremely complicated. I’m glad it came out as being fun to read! I also really enjoyed writing about Rasputin. Those photos of him, with those eerie pale eyes, and all the mystery and intrigue in his story. There’s what people thought was happening with him and the czarina (sex) versus what was really happening (he was healing her haemophiliac son when he wouldn’t stop bleeding, but that was kept from the public). And the myth that he was so hard to kill, when in fact more recent research suggests died from a bullet wound, not after being thrown in the river. And of course, the idea of his penis being worshipped by some Russian émigrés in Paris and then going on display in a St. Petersburg proctology clinic—I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.

DP: You definitely do not shy away from including controversial figures in this book, such as Adolf Hitler and the more recently deceased Osama Bin Laden. Did you feel it was important to include these individuals in the book and have you had any negative reactions as a result?

Bess: I think if you’re going to talk about the history of famous corpses you have to take the bad as well as the good. That doesn’t mean I approve of their actions while alive! I was just trying to get a 360-degree view of the phenomenon. And the corpses of villains, like Bin Laden or Hitler, were actually some of the most interesting to me. I was interested to see how political regimes will go to some length to make sure there’s no shrine, no place for worshippers to gather, where the flame of their memory can be kept alive. Because memory can be a political act. You have to be careful about what you let people remember.

DP: Were there any famous folk that you really wanted to include in the book but couldn’t for some reason?

Bess: I wanted to talk about Kurt Cobain, mostly because I came of age in Seattle in the 1990s, and I thought getting in a more modern rock star would be good. But most of Cobain’s story is bound up with Courtney Love’s version of things, and it’s pretty hard to fact-check.

DP: What do you hope people will get out of reading this brilliantly deathly collection of famous corpses?

Bess: Thanks for the kinds words. I hope it gives them some moments of delight, a delight mixed with a sense of wonder, or a delight that provokes a kind of curiosity. I hope it makes people realize that the way we now do death in the Western world is culturally specific—it hasn’t always been this way. And because it’s culturally specific, that means we get to choose how we want to do it, to some extent. People have more choice in these matters than they might think, particularly as society becomes more secular.

DP: Of course, your new book is not your first foray into the world of death and the macabre as you are a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon. Has your work with these two organisations helped you and your writing about what can often be a rather tricky subject area to most people?

Bess: I think so. The book came out in the US in March 2013, and I got involved in these groups while I was initially writing it. My involvement came naturally because of some of the conversations that were happening on Twitter, and it was very refreshing to find other, more-or-less young people who were having smart, fearless conversations about what it means to be mortal. That sounds heavy, but we were also having a lot of fun. And of course it was about finding other people who were delighting in the same kinds of macabre stories and facts that I was uncovering, who could appreciate them and also understand that sharing them doesn’t mean you have a mental disorder. People who understand that an interest in mortality is common and healthy, which is a message we want to convey to others.

DP: With your new book coming out, and the increase of a death positive movement seen through Death Salon, the popularity of death cafes and an increase in people simply talking more about death and dying, do you see the way in which we as a society perceive death changing in the coming years?

Bess: Definitely. At least in the US, we have a rapidly aging population, and one that is becoming more secular. We’re going to have a lot of dead people on our hands—we already do—and a society that is in many ways ill-equipped to deal with it. We lack the scripts that previous generations had to tell them how to deal with the dead and how to mourn, and so we’re making our own scripts, figuring it out as we go along. It’s just like the other changes that have happened since the social movements of the 60s and 70s; for decades now, many people have been re-thinking some fundamental ideas about things like birth, sex, family, work. Death is a part of all of that. Embalming is on its way out, natural burial is in, cremation rates are sky-high over here, cemeteries are overcrowded, and as you pointed out, people are having some real conversations about death in ways they haven’t before. But we probably need those conversations to continue spreading even more.

DP: The death community is certainly unlike any other that we’ve ever been involved with but we’ve found it to be one of support and friendship. What would you say is your favourite part of being involved in all things deathly, whether that’s through your writing or working with organisations such as Death Salon?

Bess: The community aspect is really important. And the community shares a lot of news and resources, which in turn feeds my writing and sometimes prevents me from getting too lonely. So everything works in a kind of symbiotic relationship. I think that actually my favourite part is being inspired by what other people come up with, and then seeing the impact they are having, and realizing that I’m privileged enough to know them!

DP: Having written a wonderfully successful book (I believe the US version was one of Amazon’s best books of 2013!), do you have any new and exciting projects planned?

Bess: I am working on an overly ambitious book about the state and history of death in America, and what changes in our relationship with death means. I might have bitten off more than I can chew! I really have no idea what will happen with it, but time will tell.

DP: Thank you for answering our questions and good luck with the UK release of Rest in Pieces.

Bess: Thank you!

——-

Thanks again to Bess for taking the time to talk to us. It was great fun and I hope you all go out and buy her book today! US folk…why haven’t you bought it already?

Book cover

Book cover

Sunday Sundries 5

Hurrah! It’s that time of the week again and we know this is what you’ve all been waiting for. Another Sunday Sundries!

While not necessarily a new video, I rediscovered this in my bookmarks and wanted to share it with all of you lovely people. What a commendable project and a definite return to some of the old ways that have been lost in communities due to modernity and new generations moving away.

Next up, morticians doing magic tricks and chocolate-covered caskets? It can only be a fun funeral! Great article about the phenomenon from HuffPo.

From fun funerals to tasty ones, Death Salon’s own Sarah Troop has a wonderful article on Modern Loss, all about funerary food. Definitely one to make you feel peckish.

I’m fascinated by death and technology, especially how we discuss dying through social media. Here are two great resources: an article about live-tweeting a person’s death and a brilliant infographic about our ‘digital demise’ from DeadSoci.al.

Finally, something pretty. HT to Caitlin Doughty of The Order of the Good Death who shared this on Facebook earlier in the week. The picture comes with an interesting article too!

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Until next time, stay death positive!

Sunday Sundries 3

Hello and happy Sunday! Welcome to another Sunday Sundries post, where we share interesting things that we have found from around the Internet this week.

First up is a powerful talk from David R. Dow. Prof. Dow is a death penalty defence lawyer  and runs a death penalty clinic at University of Houston Law Centre where law students help with representing individuals currently serving time on death row. He is also the founder of the Texas Innocence Network where law students investigate claims of actual innocence by Texas prisoners.

In this talk, Prof. Dow talks at length about the stages that a person goes through that can lead up to their execution, looking at both influences in their lives and upbringing as well as the legal process. A lot of what Prof. Dow speaks of relates to preventing murders. On Deathly Ponderings, we discuss representations of death and dying in many different parts of society, and murder is certainly not excluded from these discussions.

Next up we have something completely different from Prof John Troyer from the Unversity of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society who talks about the concept of Future Death. For those of you that went to the recent Death Salon UK, Prof Troyer gave a relatively similar talk so you might remember some of this. For those of you that were not able to attend, here’s a chance to catch up!

Finally, some fun links.

First up we have a superbly wonderful deathly Death Acceptance Reading List from the lovely folk at The Order of the Good Death. We’re certainly going to be adding some of these to our reading wishlists! What would you add to this list?

Next we have an interesting article from Mashable that looks at various business ventures that focus on death, disposal and remembrance. What would your entrepreneurial new deathly business idea be?

Lastly, a very powerful quote from writer Caitlin Moran and illustrated by the wonderfully talented Gavin Aung Thang, the person behind Zen Pencils. Certainly gives you something to think about when trying to be accepting of death and reality that that brings.

Image credit: Trey Ratcliff via Flickr Creative Commons

Billy Connolly’s Big Send-Off: a review

Billy_ConnollySo the UK TV channel ITV had a two part documentary on the topic of death, presented and produced by Billy Connolly. For those of you who don’t know who Connolly is, he’s a Scottish comedian who has courted controversy for the topics that he has covered in his routines, from blasphemy to masturbation. He is a very popular comedian and musician and has appeared in many films, including The X-Files and the best film of all time, Muppet Treasure Island.

However, Connolly has not been in the best of health recently. Fairly early on into his Big Send-Off programme, he tells how he had a very “funny” week: On Monday he got hearing aids, on Tuesday he got tablets for heart burn and on Wednesday he was told that he has prostate cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. Needless to say, this series of revelations had quite an effect on Connolly and while apparently he had been wanting to do a documentary on death for a while, having his life shaken up made him want to actually get on with finally making it.

In the first episode, Connolly took us on a (mostly) US-centric death journey with lots of interesting examples of funeral directors (including one that had a drive-thru viewing room…a classic example of the separation from the realities of death) as well as a fabulous tour of the necropolis of Colma, California. Connolly also went to a funeral directors’ exhibition where he saw lots of different services, including the exciting fungi suit that breaks down the body through providing a growing space for fungi. Connolly really wasn’t convinced by the fungi suit which made me sad as I think it is awesome! I read a few comments on reviews of the programme from around the Internet and the fungi suit wasn’t popular with viewers either. Strange. Connolly also met up with the hilarious Eric Idle who sang his “Five Stages of Death” song which was brilliant yet regrettably unreleased so I can’t link to it here.

In the second episode, Connolly continued on his journey but the tone of this part of the documentary was certainly different to the first. We saw a memorial wall to young people who had been killed in New Orleans. The local pastor for one of the areas affected said that young people in New Orleans were more likely to be killed than a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Needless to say, it was quite moving to see how the community mourned their dead and fought to keep their memory live through tshirts, processions and other forms of ritualisation.

Connolly saw lots of things and met lots of fascinating people, including a 91 year old artist who had come to terms with his inevitable death and was incredibly inspiring in the way that he approached his remaining months of living and just didn’t take anything too seriously. However, the part of the documentary that really resonated for me was when Connolly visited the anatomy department at the University of California (San Francisco) and read the many cards that anatomy students had written to the people that they had studied as part of their learning. I found the process of talking to the person who gave their body to science and learning must have been quite poignant for those students, especially after hearing lots of varied reported experiences of medical students at Death Salon UK (they ranged from naming their cadavers to trying to keep them as anonymous as possible). One of the cards said that they especially liked the deceased person’s “badass tattoos”. This made me chuckle.

Interestingly, Connolly was very unsure about donating his body to science and made lots of jokes about his physical appearance. However, after speaking with the wonderful anatomy staff, he clearly was convinced about its worth as an endeavour.

I have summarised this documentary hugely for the purposes of this post. There were lots of cool things that I haven’t mentioned and if you are in the UK, the ITV player catchup service should still have the programme up for a while. If you’re not in the UK then I’m afraid you will have to get creative or have a friend who can tape it for you, old school style!

Overall, I found the documentary to be really interesting but I found watching Billy Connolly to be quite difficult at times. I’m used to him being a force of nature, racing around a stage and swearing profusely while making his opinions known with energy and enthusiasm. The man I saw on my TV screen was a shadow of that person. Of course, this is mostly down to age and his various recent health scares but it wasn’t just that. He seemed to be nervous and afraid throughout a lot of the programme. He turned away from things that I wouldn’t expect him to, and he reacted negatively to certain situations in ways that surprised me.

I can’t possibly criticise Connolly for responding to death in a very human way. His view of life and existence has clearly changed over time and has definitely been affected by his health problems. I am grateful to him for having made this programme and I am grateful to ITV for agreeing to air it. I can only hope that Connolly finds some peace when his time comes and that he has learned a lot from making his documentary, because I know I certainly did.

When faced with our own mortality, it seems that even the most vibrant and spirited of folk can become cowed by the reality of it all and in a way, I respect the honesty that that showed throughout the documentary.

 

Burials and cannibals and flints, oh my!

14029147072_05ef3327af_oAs part of our trip to London for an excellent CSI event, Ryan and I decided to visit the Natural History Museum’s temporary exhibition (on until 28th September 2014) called Britain: one million years of the human story.

It was quite wonderful and had many gorgeous specimens that have been excavated from around Britain, covering the various settlers of Britain: Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. These specimens ranged from contemporary wildlife that these species would have hunted, plants that would have grown in these areas, and the tools that these species would have made to survive their environments.

Of course, with this being a death blog, I do have some highlights from the exhibition which I hope will encourage you to go along and visit!

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Death Salon: My Thoughts

John Bellingham's skull on display at St Bart's. Photo credit: potts-pots.blogspot.com

John Bellingham’s skull on display at St Bart’s.
Photo credit: potts-pots.blogspot.com

I’ll admit it: Georgina is more deathly than me. Apart from a period as a Goth in my teens, and an aesthetic appreciation for all things horror, death has never featured strongly in my thoughts.

So when I went along to the Death Salon at St Bart’s, I had no idea what to expect and was a bit intimidated. However, the warm welcome and engaging speakers soon swept away any lingering fears, and I was instantly hooked, drawn in to this marvelously macabre world where funerals, autopsies and decomposition were acceptable topics of conversation over tea and biscuits!

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Death Salon UK: a life-changing event

IMG_0172Earlier this month I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a three day conference in London that was all about death! Death Salon was started in the US and is based around the 18th century salon/coffeehouse movement where people got together to talk and share ideas. The recent event that I went to was the first time that Death Salon had held an event in the UK, so as soon as I heard it was happening, I snapped up two three day tickets immediately for Ryan and me!

I am very glad that I did, because during those three days I had an experience like no other. Each day had a theme: ante-mortem, peri-mortem and post-mortem. Each speaker sort of fitted in with each theme, with some finding some flexibility with their content. Each talk lasted for half an hour, with an average of 9-10 individual speakers per day, presenting on a whole range of topics. Each day was then concluded by a half hour keynote speech from one of the several Death Salon members who were in attendance: Megan Rosenbloom (Death Salon Director and co-founder), Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (Medical historian and The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice) and Caitlin Doughty (Founder of The Order of the Good Death).

As there was so much content, I cannot possibly cover each and every single speaker here, but thankfully there were some of us (myself included) who were tweeting throughout the conference and so I was able to pull everything together and create some rather epic Storify reports for each day. So, if you want the nitty gritty, check them out! Day One; Day Two; Day Three.

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