Shuffling Off (with) Someone Else’s Mortal Coil: An Interview with Bess Lovejoy, author of Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

Five times five years I lived a virgin’s life

Nine times five years I lived a virtuous wife;

Wearied of this mortal life, I rest.

— Headstone inscription, Mrs. Eunice Page, 1888 (Mann 177) 

Yorick, one of the better known characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only ever appears on stage as a skull. Andre Tchaikovsky, having seen the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) production of Hamlet, decided they needed a more RIP_Book coverrealistic skull than their plastic one. Upon his death, friends and family learned he had willed his skull to the RSC for future productions of Hamlet. The idea of what might happen to a person’s body after his death, either according to or in spite of his wishes, is the subject of Bess Lovejoy’s first book, Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Tchaikovsky’s story, discussed in an article in The Guardian, is what prompted Lovejoy’s initial idea for the book.

Working at the time as US Editor for Ben Schott’s Schott’s Almanac series, Lovejoy read the article and thought a person’s desire regarding what should happen to the corporeal self after death said a good deal about his thoughts and selves while alive. This kernel eventually wended its way into a fully-formed concept for a work of non-fiction. The 300-400 word articles she often wrote for Schott’s Almanac made her think it would be possible to write a book of individual essays or vignettes of each subject, although she did have to learn to write longer stories for the book than she had for Schott’s.

I found that the book read as well-researched while maintaining a populist tone. Lovejoy’s intelligent and droll writing keeps a potentially ghoulish topic informative and thought-provoking.

For a corpse, Elvis is probably having more fun than anyone else in the book. Even though he’s been gone for decades, he still rakes in millions each year, has hundreds of fan clubs throughout the world, and is reportedly living a life of leisure everywhere from Buenos Aires to Kalamazoo. (Rest in Pieces 81)

In later years, the media would sometimes portray [Dr. Thomas] Harvey as a stick-fingered thief. It’s true that he did not seek permission from Einstein’s family to remove the brain, but he didn’t think that was necessary. (51)

Her stories include historical facts and more modern conjecture, as well as relevant tangential (even if sometimes tall) tales. Because each corpse’s story ranges (on average) from 3-7 pages, it is easy to read a few chapters, and come back to the book later without having lost the narrative drift.

 Just found this photo of me kissin' Valentino's niche at Hollywood Forever back in January. But I promise that lipstick mark isn't from me! (author FB page)

Just found this photo of me kissin’ Valentino’s niche at Hollywood Forever back in January. But I promise that lipstick mark isn’t from me! (Lovejoy’s FB page)

Lovejoy said her research took her on a journey to all kinds of sources, as she worked in the Writers’ Room of the Seattle Public Library, located directly right next to the biography section. She also conducted research using the University of Washington’s collections, as well as newspaper and journal articles, and the occasional exhumation report. Although she initially organized the book chronologically by subject, Lovejoy took the suggestion of instead reordering the stories by overarching theme. These include chapters like (Un)solved Mysteries, Body Politics, and Collectible Corpses. She noted what this allowed for was the possibility to see connections across centuries. For example, there was a shift from grave robbers stealing skulls (like that of Joseph Haydn’s), to stealing brains (including Albert Einstein’s), which then went on a cross-country road trip. And whereas 19th century grave robbers were interested in digging up bodies (like Laurence Sterne’s) for medical research, 20th century grave robbers were interested in selling off body parts (like Alistair Cooke’s) to organ harvesters.

When asked if she had a favorite personality from those featured in the book, Lovejoy dryly responded that she “loved all her corpses equally” (Lovejoy, interview), although further discussion revealed that Rasputin’s story was among those she found most fascinating. Rasputin required poisoning, shooting, and drowning to ensure his death (although Lovejoy notes modern forensics pins his death on a bullet). His body was then disinterred and burned so that acolytes would not be tempted to gather at his gravesite. Lovejoy was interested in this tenacious desire to prevent any political uses of corpses. This draw toward cultural interpretation was something Lovejoy ended up, in large part, cutting from the finished book. She wishes now she had left more in rather than sacrificing it in favor of more straightforward, facts-only approach. One discussion that might have stayed in the book otherwise is that of Elvis’ corpse as quasi-religious figure, given the presence of relics, pilgrimages taken to Graceland, and the ever-present stories of Elvis sightings.

An 1862 engraving of the embalmed body of Julia Pastrana and her baby, who were exhibited together for years. (author FB page)

An 1862 engraving of the embalmed body of Julia Pastrana and her baby, who were exhibited together for years. (author FB page)

Lovejoy moved from Seattle back to New York, and is living in Brooklyn. When I inquired about her next project, she responded that she is currently working on magazine and other freelance pieces, but thinks her next book project will be in a more narrative format than Rest in Pieces. She still plans to write non-fiction, and finds the writing process a more intuitive one for her. She loves the idea of finding something unknown in an archive and in being able to write stories that “show the world as more interesting than people think it is.” With Rest in Pieces, Lovejoy may have provided to some of these well-trodden corpses the final rest they (and Mrs. Eunice Page of the above headstone inscription) so richly deserve.

References:

Lovejoy, Bess. Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. New York: Simon & Schuster,2013.

Lovejoy, Bess. Personal interview. 31 October 2013.

Mann, Thomas & Janet Greene. Over Their Dead Bodies: Yankee Epitaphs & History. Brattleboro, VT: The Stephen Greene Press, 1962.

What’s the most morbid, macabre book you’ve ever read?

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3 thoughts on “Shuffling Off (with) Someone Else’s Mortal Coil: An Interview with Bess Lovejoy, author of Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

  1. Morbid, macabre books aren’t usually my cup of tea, but I thought Dracula was just terrific, esp. for its suspense at the end. Who would think a book told by diary entries and letters could be a nail biter?

  2. JS, Thanks for providing such an informative review. I’m looking forward to adding the novel to my ‘Read’ list.

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