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.

Thomas Paine

After his death in 1809, the “Common Sense” author was denied a Quaker burial in America because of his outspoken challenges to organized religion. A group of mourners, including a rebellious Quaker minister, buried Paine at his farm in New York. A decade later, William Cobbett, a former critic who’d had a change of heart, dug up Paine’s grave and took it to Liverpool, England, but he couldn’t garner support for a proper funeral. Paine’s remains rested in a trunk until after Cobbett’s death, at one point serving as a stool in a tailor shop, before it was auctioned off. In 1864, an American abolitionist tracked down a London minister who’d bragged about having Paine’s skull and hand, but it turned out the minister’s son had thrown them out. An American abolitionist returned a chunk of the author’s brain to America at the turn of the century and buried it on the grounds of Paine’s New York farm, but the rest of him remains lost.

Albert Einstein

The fascination with Albert Einstein’s high-achieving mind didn’t cease after his death in 1955. When the theoretical physicist died at age 76, Thomas Harvey, a Princeton University pathologist conducted an autopsy and, without permission, removed Einstein’s brain for further study, hoping to solve the mystery of his genius. The organ was dissected into more than 200 pieces, several of which were examined by multiple neurologists over the years, leading to studies about the great thinker’s abundance of glial cells and wider-than-normal parietal lobes. In 2011, 46 slides of Einstein’s brain went on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Alexander the Great

Historians agree that Alexander the Great, a Macedonian king and an Aristotle-tutored commander famous for his undefeated record in battle, rests eternally somewhere in Alexandria, Egypt, but they’re still not sure where. When Alexander died in 323 B.C. in Babylon at age 32, his body was moved to the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, where it remained for two decades until it was reburied in Alexandria, the city the young king had founded. At the end of the third century, it was moved back to Alexandria to another tomb, where it was visited by Julius Caesar, Caligula and Augustus, who accidentally knocked off Alexander’s nose when he bent down to kiss the corpse.

Vladimir Lenin

The final resting place of the Bolshevik leader, however, is no mystery, because it’s on display inside a glass coffin in Moscow, where visitors can gaze on Lenin for five minutes at a time. His embalmed body was meant to only be on display before his funeral, after which the government planned to bury him, but public outcry led to its extended stay aboveground. The wax-like corpse undergoes routine cleaning, and Lenin is changed into a new suit every three years. In a 2011 poll, Russians voted in favor of lowering Lenin into the ground, but he remains in Red Square for now.

Napoleon Bonaparte

After the former French emperor died in exile 1821 in Great Britain, 20 years would pass before his body returned to its home country. What happened next is the result of an autopsy that took one too many liberties. The doctor had allegedly removed the emperor’s genitals, and they joined some of Napoleon’s other belongings in a collection that was later auctioned in London in 1916. In 1927, the organ went on display at the Museum of French Art in New York City. It changed several collectors’ hands until the 1970s, when it was purchased by an American urologist, who kept it in a suitcase underneath his bed until he died in 2007 and his daughter inherited it.

Galileo Galilei

Deemed a heretic for his heliocentric beliefs, Galileo did not receive a proper burial after he died in 1642. Almost a century later, members of the scientific community unearthed his remains, moving them into a marble tomb in Santa Croce Basilica in Florence—but not before taking a few souvenirs: several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra. The backbone eventually appeared at the University of Padua, his middle finger in a collection that spawned the Galileo Museum. The rest disappeared in 1905, but was recovered at a Florence auction three years ago, and now resides in the eponymous museum.

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