When the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in the summer of 1832, he left behind a very specific—and rather odd—set of instructions for the handling of his remains. He wanted his body to be dissected, his head mummified and his skeleton dressed in a black suit and placed inside of a cabinet for display. He also requested that memorial rings containing braided locks of his hair be sent to family members, employees and a number of prominent individuals. Now, the University College London is now trying to track these rings down.
According to Laura Geggel at Live Science, the unusual gifts feature not only a glazed compartment stuffed with Bentham’s hair, but also his engraved signature and a silhouette of his bust. Bentham is believed to have started planning for the rings around a decade before he died, commissioning the artist John Field to paint his silhouette in 1822.
UCL is in possession of four of the 26 total memorial rings. Three are inscribed to the publisher William Tait, the Belgian politician Sylvain van de Weyer, and famed philosopher John Stuart Mill, respectively. The fourth was not inscribed, so experts aren’t sure who owned it. Two more rings are privately held; one, which was bequeathed to the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, was recently sold at auction, and the other is owned by the family of William Stockwell, Bentham’s servant.
The whereabouts of the remaining 20 rings are unknown, and according to Sarah Knapton of the Telegraph, UCL hopes that descendants of the original owners will come forward with new information. There is good reason to believe that some of the rings may have traveled far beyond England; the ring that once belonged to Mill was tracked down at a jeweler’s shop in New Orleans.
Experts are interested in finding these curious relics because they “help to highlight how attitudes to death and memory have changed over time,” says Subhadra Das, curator of UCL collections, in a statement.
“The rings and the lock of hair might seem morbid to some today, but it was fairly common practice at the time,” she adds. “Our modern, western views of death come from the early 20th Century when World War I made grief a luxury and the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud encouraged its repression. I think the Victorians would find our attitude to death rather cold.”
Memorial rings are one thing. Displaying one’s mummified head in a cabinet is quite another, and Das says Bentham’s plans for his body would have been considered a “social taboo” at the time of his death. Bentham, best known for his principle of utilitarianism, was a quirky fellow, but he was also a remarkably progressive thinker in many ways. He advocated for universal suffrage and the decriminalization of homosexuality, he espoused animal welfare and he helped establish Britain’s first police force. Bentham also held advanced ideas about the value of donating one’s body to science, at a time when many people thought that the deceased needed to remain intact in order to gain entry to heaven. According to the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Bentham “tried to encourage people to change their attitudes towards dissection by donating his body to medical science.”
However, UCL’s Bentham Project, which has been working since the 1960s to produce a new scholarly edition of the philosopher’s works and correspondence, notes that other explanations have been proffered for Bentham’s motivations, ranging from “a practical joke at the expense of posterity to a sense of overweening self-importance.” The philosopher did request in his will that the box containing his remains be brought to any gatherings of his “personal friends and other disciples,” should they be “disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation.”
Bentham’s “Auto-Icon,” as he wanted his preserved body to be called, is now on display at UCL. The head that sits atop the skeleton is made of wax; the preservation of the real thing did not go very well, and for some years, the “decidedly unattractive” head was kept tucked away on the floor of the cabinet. In 1975, after students from King’s College swiped the head, Bentham’s mummified noggin was taken off public display.
But UCL does trot the strange relic out on rare occasions. Last year, Bentham’s head was featured in an exhibition on death and preservation, which, one might imagine, would have made the late philosopher quite pleased.