Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Show goes on even after death

Compendium follows up on corpses of more than 50 famous people

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For some bodies of the famous, it seems the show goes on even after death.

This aptly titled compendium follows up on the corpses of more than 50 famous people and the adventures (or misadventures) of their body parts.

As gruesome as her subject matter may first appear, Seattle-based journalist Bess Lovejoy rarely descends into the grisly.

Her very short chapters speed the reader along and her flippant humour often keeps the stories more gossipy than ghastly.

Rest in Pieces, Lovejoy's first book, spans more than 2,000 years, from Alexander the Great to Osama bin Laden. The varieties of indignities that can occur to a corpse are equally vast.

Lovejoy reports that film genius Charlie Chaplin's corpse was kidnapped and reburied in a cornfield while being held for ransom. Latin American revolutionary Ché Guevara's hands were sawn off his corpse and stored in formaldehyde for access to his fingerprints.

Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin's penis was removed and is currently on display in St. Petersburg, although an item that was also reputed to be that severed member was later proven to be a sea cucumber.

Lovejoy admits that some stories about what happened to bodies are conflicting. In such instances, she chose the version she felt had the most-respected documentation.

In the case of actor John Barrymore, whose corpse was allegedly taken from the funeral home and propped up in a suit for a final drink with his buddy Errol Flynn, Lovejoy offers several of the circulated stories but concludes that probably none are true.

She provides a 30-page bibliography for readers "who want to take their own stab at unraveling the mysteries." A number of her sources are recent newspaper articles, thus updating other work in this area, including Edwin Murphy's 1995 collection, After the Funeral: The Posthumous Adventures of Famous Corpses.

Lovejoy states that her book sketches "the evolution of our attitudes toward death and mourning." But her glib style, her focus on detail without linking to the bigger picture, and her emphasis only on the famous suggests celebrity scandal more than cultural history.

It is quite possible that Lovejoy's tone is calculated to satisfy readers who found Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen's 2010 book, Digging up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials, too scholarly. She may be hoping instead for the popular reception Mary Roach's bestselling and award-winning book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers had in 2003.

Although the consideration and insight she provided in her pieces on death in the New York Times are generally lacking, Rest in Pieces offers the general audience an array of interesting, and oddly entertaining, examples of reverence and irreverence toward the deceased.

With its oblong shape suggesting a casket, and its funereal black and grey cover, Rest in Pieces is cleverly designed by Jason Heuer, associate art director of Simon & Schuster. Cover illustrations are by Mark Stutzman, known for his illustrations of Stephen King novels and the young Elvis stamp. His illustrations also introduce each famous corpse with a fittingly drawn tombstone.

"While death troubles us," Lovejoy says, "it also intrigues us. Death is the ultimate mystery and contemplating it does us good."

Rest in Pieces reminds us to seize the day, before someone seizes our pieces.

Mary Horodyski is a writer, researcher, and archivist in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 J8

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