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Central Standard

The Fascinating Fates Of 4 Famous Corpses

Simon & Schuster

When most of us think about death, we assume our bodies will take the traditional route of being cremated or buried. This is not always the case, as author Bess Lovejoy points out in her new book,Rest In Pieces released in March 2013. 

On this encore edition of Central Standard, host Suzanne Hogan talks with Lovejoy about the journeys famous corpses took before being laid to rest, because not every story ends with a death.

Here are four of the stories from the broadcast:

1. Albert Einstein

Most of these stories will fall into one of two categories: either the deceased will have their bizarre wishes fulfilled, or, as is the case with Einstein, their remains go take a road trip across the landscape.

Before Einstein died, he was well aware of his popularity and fame. According to Lovejoy, he had written that "I want to be cremated, so people don't come to worship at my bones." And his body was cremated and his ashes scattered. However, his brain did not follow his body — enter Dr. Thomas Harvey of Princeton Hospital. Harvey knew that Einstein's brain would be extremely important to medical research and decided to remove it during the autopsy. The brain was cut into many pieces and sent to various universities and labs for studies, all without the permission of Einstein's family.

Even more shockingly, when Dr. Harvey was fired from his position, he decided to keep Einstein's brain with him in his closet. It would then travel wherever he went always in Harvey's safekeeping, it even found its way to Lawrence, Kan. where Dr. Harvey retired. The brain eventually found its way back to Princeton Hospital after Dr. Harvey died in 2007.

2. Joseph Haydn

Credit Wikimedia Commons - CC

Today, composer Joseph Haydn's body rests in the the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, Austria. It took many years to completely assemble the body, but it is now complete from toe to head to head — Haydn's tomb actually contains two skulls, but just how did that happen?

In the early 1800s, phrenology was a popular topic for scientists. It involved measuring the bumps and shapes of the brains to determine where someone might be greater at one area over another. Unluckily for Haydn, his friend Joseph Rosenbaum was one such man interested in phrenology. On a whim, he decided to take Haydn's skull for himself and have it cleaned and examined with the help from Johann Peter. He was attempting to determine whether or not Haydn had the "Organ of Tune," a bump that would appear over the left eye. 

Upon stealing it, he placed it in a handsome wood-and-glass display case, effectively preserving it for study. Soon, however, the Vienna police came knocking. He managed to elude them momentarily by giving them a decoy skull (he had one lying around?). This substitute skull is the one that would be buried with Haydn, while Rosenbaum held onto the real one until his death, where he willed it to Johann Peter who gave it to the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna where it eventually found its way to Haydn's resting place in Eisenstadt in 1954 — only 145 years after Haydn first died.

3. Gram Parsons

These final two stories both involve the odd, and sometimes expensive final wishes of the deceased, and the great lengths friends will go to in order to make sure they are carried out.

Credit Wikimedia Commons - CC

Gram Parsons is best known for playing with influential band, The Byrds, as well as the Flying Burrito Brothers. During the 1970s, he would develop two important relationships that would be very important in death, one with Joshua Tree National Park in California and the other with road manager and friend, Phil Kaufman.

According to Bess Lovejoy, while Parsons and Kaufman were attending a friend's funeral, they found it too drab and didn't fit in with their rock 'n' roll lifestyle. So, Parsons and Kaufman decided to make a pact. If one of them were to die, the other must douse the body in gasoline and set it on fire. And Phil Kaufman didn't go back on his word. 

In September 1973, Parsons died of a morphine overdose. Kaufman mentioned Parsons' final wishes to his family, but they did not think that was a proper way honor Gram. Kaufman still disagreed and he developed a plan (if you can call it that) with a friend to steal Parsons' body. First, they began drinking, heavily. Next, they borrowed a hearse from another friend. From there, they were able to drive up to LAX where they convinced Airport Security staff to give them the body. More drinking followed, and they eventually made their way out to Joshua Tree. As promised, Kaufman poured gasoline on the body, and lit a match, giving Gram Parsons his final wish. Police were alerted to the presence of a fire in Joshua Tree, and gave Kaufman chase, but he was able to elude them for several days. Kaufman would later be fined $750 for the theft of a coffin.

4. Hunter S. Thompson

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson always wanted to go out with a bang. The plans for his funeral went beyond the average man's. He didn't want to be buried or cremated, he didn't even want his ashes sent into space (like Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary). Thompson's idea for a funeral was much more extravagant.

Credit Wikimedia Commons - CC
This is what Hunter S. Thompson wanted the monument to look like.

First, he wanted a large monument of a fist with two thumbs holding peyote to be built. This was the symbol for Gonzo journalism and it only made sense for the man to be remembered for his greatest achievements. What makes less sense is that he also wanted a cannon to be placed on top of the monument where a mixture of his ashes and fireworks would be shot out of it, while Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" was played.

What also wasn't clear was how Hunter S. Thompson expected to pay for all this. Luckily, he had friends in high places. Johnny Depp financed the operation — monument, cannon, and music and was able to fulfill Hunter S. Thompson's final wish.


For more fascinating stories of famous corpses, including Joan of Arc, Sir Francis Bacon, and St. Nicholas, check out today's Central Standard show, or Bess Lovejoy's book - Rest in Pieces.


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Matthew Long-Middleton has been a talk-show producer, community producer, Media Training Manager and now the Community Engagement Manager at KCUR. You can reach him at Matthew@kcur.org, or on Twitter @MLMIndustries.
Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today.

In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.