Top Ten Afterlife Journeys of Notable People

Why Beethoven, Galileo, Napoleon and others never truly rested in peace

(© Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis)

For more than 500 years, the whereabouts of King Richard III of England, who was killed in the one of the last battles of the War of the Roses, were unknown. A skeleton was dug up in a parking lot in Leicester late last year, and last month, archeologists confirmed the centuries-old corpse belonged to the king. Death wasn’t the end for Richard, as experts study his remains and historians argue where they should finally be put to rest. 

It wasn’t over for these historical figures either, as told in great detail by Bess Lovejoy in “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses,” out March 12. These men’s unfortunate corpses were hacked, stolen, transported across oceans and even stuffed into a trunk and used as a chair.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Twenty-five years before his death in 1827, in a letter lamenting his failing health, Ludwig van Beethoven requested that when he died, the cause would be publicly revealed to his fans. An autopsy revealed the cause of death as dropsy, a type of swelling in the blood known today as edema, but then it went a step too far. The doctor, Johann Wagner, cut apart the composer’s skull so unskillfully that the pieces wouldn’t fit neatly back together, a fact only discovered after an exhumation in 1863. He had also removed the ear bones, presumably to study the composer’s hearing loss, and they’ve never been found. The body was placed in a new vault, but several bone fragments remained above ground, showing up in a late anthropologist’s personal effects in 1945. They arrived in California in 1990, and in 2005, researchers matched them to a lock of Beethoven’s hair using DNA analysis.

Lord Byron

When the poet died in present-day Greece in 1824, English officials suggested he be buried at the summit of the Parthenon, but his embalmed body eventually returned to his native England. Prior to that, an autopsy was performed for unknown reasons, despite Byron’s antemortem wishes, and five doctors removed his brain, heart, lungs and intestines, placing them in spirit-filled vases before stitching the body back up and embalming it. The literary Casanova was denied burial in the Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey because of his reputation with women, and taken to the Byron family vault in the English town of Hucknall. In 1938, rumors that his body was not the one interred in the vault resulted in its exhumation. A group of 40, including a historian, a doctor and church officials, confirmed it was indeed Byron.

Abraham Lincoln

After his assassination, the 16th president was embalmed and placed in an elaborate marble tomb in Springfield, Illinois. On election night, 1876, a group of counterfeiters attempted to steal the corpse, planning to hold it for ransom to force the release of famous engraver Benjamin Boyd, who had been pinched for forging $50 bills. Their scheme was interrupted by the Secret Service, which coincidentally Lincoln had created the day he was shot. The late president’s coffin was moved underneath the tomb, resurfacing once more in 1901, when workers sealed it in a steel cage and block of concrete. According to a young boy who, along with a small group of Illinois officials, snuck a peek at the politician one last time, Lincoln was perfectly preserved.

Charlie Chaplin

After just two months spent six feet under, the corpse of the comedic actor was stolen from a cemetery in Switzerland in 1978, sparking a five-week police investigation. The body snatchers demanded a $600,000 ransom from his widow. Authorities arrested two mechanics in the crime, who led them to the body they’d buried in a cornfield one mile from the Chaplins’ home (the actor relocated to Europe in 1953 to escape McCarthyism-era accusations.) The men were convicted of grave robbing, and the actor’s corpse was re-interred in a concrete grave.


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