Age, we are told, is just a number. But as I grow older I find that age also means loss of memory, an ache here, a pain there and inflexible and creaky bones.
Old age makes me think about death more often. Soren Kierkegaard said “The thought of death is a good dancing partner”, you don’t fear your dancing partner. Thoughts of death also makes me think of what happens after death. Some believe in reincarnation. Others believe that we came from the stars and we go back to the stars. Still others believe in an eternal bliss, though they would, like Chesterton, “Rather prefer to go on living” and postpone that bliss as long as possible. Some of these people claim to have a special gift of being able to talk to the dead. They offer this as proof that there is a life after death. Actually, talking to the dead anybody can do, what is tough is getting the dead talk to us.
After-life is about our souls, the so-called non-body part of us. But many are also very concerned about what happens to their body after death. One person stipulated in his Will that he should be buried in a non-smoking area. Family and church members had the body of Doctor Simon Hercules who died of Covid-19 in Chennai exhumed to be reburied in a Christian cemetery. One BJP luminary wants cows to be cremated and not buried since cows are Hindus.
If you are an ordinary mortal, only your family members will be interested in your body after death. But if you are a celebrity, the state, your admirers, your enemies, scientists and thieves get involved. In the process Descartes lost his head, Galileo his fingers, Einstein his brain and Rasputin his penis. Famous corpses have been used to found cities and empires. While some have been lost, others bought and sold, others are languishing in cupboards and suitcases. Phrenologists used Joseph Haydn’s and Marquis de Sade’s skulls and neurologists used Albert Einstein’s and Walt Whitman’s brains to prove their theories.
For scientists death is a technical problem which one day can be solved or eliminated. But for all religions death is a necessity because without death there can be no re-birth, heaven or hell.
All religions have rules and rituals about how the body is to be treated after death – where, when and how. Christians, for instance, have rules about who is allowed to be buried in a church cemetery. Voltaire was an agnostic. He refused death-bed Communion telling the priest “I would remind you that I am constantly spitting blood. We really must avoid getting the Almighty’s blood mixed up with mine.” His body would have been thrown into trash by the Church. The Paris administration feared people’s wrath if that happened to their favourite. So, after his death, Voltaire’s body was propped up in his own carriage as if he was alive and taken to his country estate hoping the public would forget what happened to his body. His nephew diverted the carriage and buried him secretly in an abandoned chapel. Come the French Revolution, the Church lost all its power. To the revolutionists Voltaire was a hero. On July 11, 1791, thirteen years after his death, his bones were interned in the Pantheon with full honours. Another case is Moliere’s. Actors were not to be given a Christian burial in 17th century France because, according to the Church, acting was lowly work. Many actors got around the problem by a death-bed confession giving up their livelihood. Moliere didn’t have a chance to do this because he died suddenly soon after a stage performance. His widow Armande was not going to let her famous husband’s body to be thrown into a cesspit. She approached the King and the Archbishop. As a compromise Moliere was given a quiet, no-ceremony burial, some say at a depth of twelve feet because the clergy had determined that consecrated ground went only up to eight feet. But no one was sure where exactly Moliere was buried. During the Revolution, Moliere became a hero. The revolutionists wanted to rebury him with due honours. Not knowing where he was buried, they dug up some bones at random and called them Moliere’s. These are now buried in Paris in a cemetery meant only for the famous where Frederic Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde are buried. Moliere was an actor, so it is fitting that his bones are also only “acting bones”.
Once a saintly person is buried, religion is interested in the body for its relic-value. The Catholic Church is most relic-obsessed. One problem with relics is that you are never sure if they are genuine. There was the foreskin of Jesus known as the Holy Prepuce kept at the Vatican. In 1983 it was reported stolen, some think the Vatican itself stole it because it was becoming an embarrassment. After the Church converted Joan of Arc from a witch to a saint, a jar “containing the bones of Joan of Arc” was found in Paris. The Church officially recognized the relics as those of Saint Joan. An analysis in 2007 showed that the bones, a human rib and a cat femur, were from ancient Egyptian mummies. People pray to and miracles are reported from the bones of Thomas Becket contained in a coffin in the Canterbury Cathedral. That is fine except that those bones are not Becket’s. Che Guevara went to Congo and Bolivia to replicate the Cuban revolution and failed. The Bolivian forces killed Guevara. The nurse who washed his emaciated body thought his body resembled the martyred Christ. Some villagers took his hair as relics and soon reported miracles by praying to “Saint Ernesto”
While Catholics set great store by relics, Protestants detest them. Martin Luther spoke vehemently against relics-veneration; John Calvin called them an “execrable sacrilege”. But Catholics are not the only people who give great importance to relics. The Hazratbal Shrine in Kashmir is said to contain a hair plucked from the Prophet’s beard. It goes on display ten times each year. The most famous of Buddha’s teeth, his left canine, was believed to confer the right to rule on the one who possesses it. So there have been centuries of wars over it. It is now in the Temple of the Holy Tooth in Kandy. Hundreds of pilgrims venerate it daily specially during the ten-night Sacred Tooth Festival each summer.
Missing Pieces, Too Many Pieces
One of the problem’s with dying is that you have no control over what happens to your body once you are dead. Anything can happen to your body, specially if you are famous. Shakespeare foresaw this and placed a curse on anyone who tampered with his remains. His grave at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, is engraved with these lines:
Good friend for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Milton should have done the same thing. A century after his death, parishioners dug up his coffin to build a church monument to the great poet. The church warden together with five of his drinking buddies opened the coffin and took away pieces of his ribs, his teeth and clumps of his long hair. These were put in the market for sale. In the next few days, according to one newspaper report, “several thousands” of Milton’s teeth and other body parts were bought and sold. A Milton fan bought back as many of the body pieces as he could find in the market. These have been interned in a child’s coffin. Many believe these are not Milton’s at all.
Descartes died of pneumonia in Stockholm where he was tutoring Queen Christina in philosophy. Christina wanted to honour him by burying him in the Church where traditionally Swedish Kings are buried. But the Lutherans won’t allow a Catholic to be buried in their church. So he was buried in the cemetery of a small church in the corner reserved for unbaptized children. Later France wanted its son back and brought his bones to Paris and today his remains are in Saint-Germain-de-Pres, the oldest church in Paris. But there is hardly anything of Descartes there. Different admirers had taken most of his bones. His skull is with the French Academy of Sciences, all the previous owners of the skull had written their names on it. There are also at least four other skulls which people claim belonged to Descartes.
Thomas Paine gave the intellectual and emotional stimulus for America’s independence movement. But Paine was not only against the British he was also against all organized religions. When he died, his own sect, the Quaker Church, denied him the sacred burial ground. How could they accept the body of a man who had written “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit” and who claimed that he had gone “marching through the Christian forest with an axe”? So Paine was buried in his farm near New York. Ten years later an enemy-turned-admirer of Paine brought his remains to England for a grand burial. That did not happen because he couldn’t raise the necessary funds. The trunk containing Paine’s remains became the property of a tavern keeper and then of an indigent tailor who sat on it, literally, using it as a stool. A later owner threw it into trash. Parts of Thomas Paine have been reported around Europe and the “Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative” is buying up as many bits as they can and subjecting them to DNA testing.
You Propose, Others Dispose
Dante was born in Florence but was exiled from there due to his politics. After wandering throughout Italy, he settled down, died and was buried in Ravenna. Centuries later the people of Florence wanted their famous son back. Michelangelo, also from Florence, offered to sculpt Dante’s tomb. But the people of Ravenna wouldn’t give up their adopted poet. Pope Leo X, himself a Florentine, sent bandits to steal Dante’s remains. They found his coffin empty and reported to the Pope “It is supposed that in his lifetime Dante journeyed through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, so in death he must have been received into one of these places”. What happened was that he friars had taken out Dante’s remains and hidden them because they did not want them to be given to Florence. Florence finally gave up its claim and now sends money for the oil for the lamp at Dante’s tomb.
Michelangelo died in Rome, but he had wanted to be buried in Florence so that he be resurrected on Judgment Day to the sight of his favourite piece of architecture, the cupola of Florence Cathedral. But because of all the squabbles about his tomb, he was buried in Santa Croce. He is still waiting to go to Florence.
The followers of Alexander the Great claimed that he was born of a virgin with God as his father. Alexander himself encouraged this idea and said that his mortality appeared only during sleep and sex. So it was easy for Ptolemy (not the astronomer) to keep Alexander’s bones and found an empire on their strength. Lenin’s is perhaps the most famous political corpse. The Russian Orthodox Church had always accorded special veneration to saints whose bodies had remained “incorruptible”. Stalin used this popular belief and had Lenin’s body embalmed and kept in perpetuity. Polls have shown that most Russians would like to put Lenin under six feet of earth, after all he represents a political system that has failed miserably. Some also feel that until Lenin’s body is safely buried, Russia can never get back on track. But politicians want to keep Lenin “alive”. Die-hard communists foiled Boris Yeltsin’s attempt to bury Lenin, Putin doesn’t want Lenin buried saying it would disillusion the people (Stalin also wanted to be immortalized and had his body embalmed and kept for people’s adulation. But Khrushchev had his body removed and unceremoniously buried)
While some memories are perpetuated, attempts were made to obliterate other memories. The Americans dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the sea so nobody would know where his remains are, let alone build a shrine. But a treasure hunter called Bill Warren claims that he has located bin Laden’s remains at the bottom of the sea, about three hundred kilometers west of Surat, Gujerat. He also claims that a Pakistani group has offered twenty million for bin Laden’s bones. Barak Obama was not the first to resort to water-burial as a means to obliterate someone’s memory. The ashes of Nazis executed after the Nuremberg trials were scattered in rivers and lakes. Russian revolutionaries burned Rasputin’s body so pro-monarchists wouldn’t build a shrine to him. But his penis, removed by his murderers and said to be the source of all Rasputin’s successes, was bought and sold in later years.
Stolen and Brought Back
Many famous bodies had been stolen. An attempt to steal the remains of Abraham Lincoln was foiled. His body has been moved sixteen times to outwit thieves. In 1901 Lincoln’s son Robert had his father’s bones buried in a thief-proof vault below the Lincoln Memorial. Charlie Chaplin’s body was stolen for ransom, but the police caught the thieves and got the body back. There was an attempt to steal the body of Elvis Presley. Some of his fans believe that Elvis never died or he has risen from the dead; there have been several sightings of Elvis Presley. Some scholars believe that Elvis worship could develop into a full-blown religion. Whether that may come true or not, no one has made as much money after death as Elvis. Even decades after his death, he rakes in millions every year from his fans.
May be this whole fuss about where, when and how a body is to be disposed off is meaningless. More sensible perhaps is the attitude of Charlie Chaplin’s widow Oona who refused to pay ransom for her husband’s body saying “A body is simply a body. My husband is in heaven and in my heart.”