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Book Review — ‘Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses’ by Bess Lovejoy

You walked into a room the other day, and completely forgot why.

These lapses in memory just kill you. If you couldn’t remember what you needed, you were dead in the water. But ideas don’t expire, which is a good thing because it took awhile to recall what you wanted.

Seriously, sometimes you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached — and that’s a problem, but as you’ll see in the new book, “Rest in Pieces” by Bess Lovejoy, there are a lot worse things you could lose.

It’s a fact: everybody dies at one time or another but “some of the most notable lives in history have had surprising postscripts.” The bodies to which those lives were attached had more adventure in death than they perhaps had in life: they’ve been “bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen and dissected.”

Take, for instance, the guy who inspired the legend of Santa Claus. Yes, Saint Nicholas was a real person with a real body that’s been fought-over since Nick died 1,600 years ago. He began his end in Turkey and now lies in Bari, Italy.

Or Venice. Maybe both.

Deceased Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg lost his head to someone who wanted to study bumps on his noggin. One of Joseph Haydn’s friends took Haydn’s head as a memento, while Beethoven’s doctor stole bones from the composer’s inner ear. Einstein got to keep his head, but his brain went on an extended road trip from New Jersey to the Midwest and back.

Even ashes make splashes: Hunter S. Thompson’s cremains went up with a pop, while Timothy Leary’s went out of this world, along with Gene Rodenberry’s. Joan of Arc’s ashes were probably just thrown in the Seine.

Mary Shelley kept her husband’s heart. Alistair Cooke’s cancerous bones were illegally used for organ-donation. Elvis’ body may have been the target of grave robbers (or it may have been a publicity stunt). Edgar Allen Poe’s death and his gravesite both hold mystery. Lee Harvey Oswald’s body is in the right grave, but authorities are “not so sure about the head.”

Informative, lively, and rather macabre in a fun way, “Rest in Pieces” is one of those books that makes you call your friends on the phone, just so you can say, “Hey, listen to this!” You won’t be able to help yourself. You’ll have to share.

That’s because author Bess Lovejoy has filled this volume with little-known information on the bodies of the well-known, and what happened to them. Some of the stories are a little squirmy, yes, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by what you’ll read — all of which makes for an unusual history book that will also appeal to lovers of the odd.

If you’re in the mood for something interesting and loaded with quirk, I really think that this is a book you should dig up. For you, missing “Rest in Pieces” would be a grave mistake.

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“Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses” by Bess Lovejoy

c.2013, Simon & Schuster

$22 / $26 Canada

329 pages

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