A dead body in motion tends to stay in motion
If I was a good author or had keen marketing sense, this is a post I would have done a few weeks ago around Halloween. Luckily, I’m neither of those things.
This is a bit of a macabre post, and something that only has to do with writing tangentially. While re-reading some of my history notes about the death of Cleopatra (editing the new edition of 12.21.12, forthcoming), I was reminded of an event that occurred when Julius Caesar first entered Alexandria. He met face-to-face with Alexander the Great. Which might not strike you as odd at first. Both Caesar and AtG are titans of ancient history, and if they happened to be in the same town, you’d imagine they’d get together for a latte. Here’s the thing, though: when they met, Alexander had been dead for over 200 years, and the fact that his body was even in Egypt for Caesar to visit is a tale in itself.
When we’re in school, we often read about the feats of historical greats, or about their shortcomings. We very rarely read anything about their exploits after they die. For most people, the story stops when the heart does. For others, however, death is hardly the end of the journey. This is an odd bit of history, but one that fascinates me. I thought I’d just do a quick post to share a few examples with my readers, who no doubt are historically sympathetic like me. So, let’s start where we started and work from there:
Given the fact that he conquered much of the known world during his life, you might be surprised to learn that Alexander the Great died at thirty-two. One of the things he couldn’t conquer was dependency; alcohol was either the main cause or leading factor in his demise. He went out on top though, with an empire that stretched all the way from modern Greece to Northern India. Because he probably expected to be around a good long time before he’d have to make major life decisions, like who would be his successor, his death triggered a series of conflicts among his generals for power and real estate. Some believed whomever buried AtG gained legitimacy. When Alex died in Babylon, his body was entombed in honey for preservation and/or mummified by Egyptian priests, hung out there for two years, and was then sent in a procession, all while two generals still vied for the right to bury him at their seat of power either in Siwa or Macedon. Unfortunately for them, another general (and possibly Alex’s half-brother) named Ptolemy crashed the procession, stole the body, and squirreled it off to Memphis (not the one where Elvis is buried, the other one in Egypt) where he had been installed as Pharaoh. Fifty years after that, Ptolemy’s heirs constructed a tomb in the city founded by the conqueror, Alexandria, and interred him there. A procession of Greco-Roman greats considered it a duty to pay their respects. Augustus Octavian was doing just that when Rome conquered Egypt once and for all and supposedly knocked Alexander’s nose off his face. “Accidentally.” Eventually around 200 AD, almost 500 years after his death, the reigning Roman emperor closed the tomb. What happened to Alexander’s body after that is a mystery. Rumors circulated for centuries that the body had been passed around by any number of people, and some still think there might come a time when AtG’s body is discovered once more.
The name of Argentinean First Lady Eva Duarte de Peron might not ring a bell. You might, however, be familiar with her as Evita. Yes, that Evita who Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical around and who, for my money, Madonna actually did a pretty good job of playing. “Evita” has a mixed legacy, with some believing her a rags-to-riches champion of the poor, and others seeing her as a cog in her husband’s administration, one widely criticized for its corruption and human rights violations. Juan Peron’s regime counted on Eva’s sway over the poor and world leaders alike to solidify its base of power. Like Alexander, Eva suffered an early death, passing away in 1952 from cancer at the age of thirty-three and costing Juan Peron a critical political tool. In death, he sought to transform his wife into a martyr who’d been drained in her tireless efforts to fight for the downtrodden. Embalmers did their work within hours of her death. For two years, her preserved corpse sat on public display in the office lobby of a powerful labor union while a grandiose memorial was constructed. Unfortunately in this age of Argentina history, coup d’etat was frequent. Only the memorial’s base was complete when Peron was overthrown and forced to flee. In 1955, Eva’s body went missing, and would not surface again for sixteen years. Members of the military responsible for Peron’s ouster admitted in 1971 that Eva had been interred in Italy, noting also that her corpse had been “damaged” during transit. The body was exhumed and delivered to Juan Peron in exile in Spain, where he displayed it in his dining room. In 1973, the winds of power shifted again, and Peron returned to Argentina, only to die in office. His third wife and vice-president brought Eva’s body back to Argentina, where in 1974, she was finally laid to rest in her family’s crypt in Buenos Aires. So fearful was the government of the body’s temptation to revolutionaries and thieves, however, that it lays buried beneath trapdoors, false coffins, and a marble slab, in a tomb the designers claim could withstand a nuclear blast.
I bet that unless you’re from Kentucky, are a hardcore spelunker, or a fan of odd history, you’ve never heard of Floyd Collins. Yet, for a brief time, he was perhaps one of the most famous men in America. While exploring a cave near his home in 1925, Floyd became trapped in a narrow passage when his light went out and a 16 lb. rock fell, lodging his leg to a cave wall. He was found by his brothers a few days later, but no one could get to Floyd to move the rock. In the nascent age of mass media, the hour-by-hour struggle to free Floyd spread like wild fire. The only way to rescue him was to dig another shaft alongside the cave and bring him out from the other direction. A cave-in cut off the supply of food and water and cost rescuers precious time. Nearly three weeks had passed by the time they reached Floyd, but it was too late. Doctors estimated he’d died a few days earlier. They entombed Floyd in place. Several months later his brothers, wishing to give him a proper burial, dug out his body (they had to hacksaw off his leg and remove it separately) and interred him on their family land. When hard times hit, Floyd’s family sold the farm, and the new owner exhumed the body and contracted it out for public display in a glass coffin at nearby Crystal Cave. In 1929, the body was stolen, but soon recovered, minus the separated leg. Crystal Cave was closed to the public in 1961, but the family was not able to recover Floyd’s body and rebury him until 1989.
And this might be slicing hairs or… um, other things, but a mention here of a partial qualifier. Napoleon Bonaparte died while in exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821. In 1840, King Louis Philippe I moved his body via ship up the Seine. His body was housed in St. Jerome’s Chapel in Paris, until the completion of his tomb at Les Invadiles, where his corpse has been interred since 1861. Most of it. One particular part, and I’ll let you infer which part that may be, was separated from his body and given to a priest in Corsica. Since 1821 it’s had quite an afterlife. It last changed hands in 1977 when a New Jersey Urologist purchased the piece at auction for $3000, only to keep it in a storage bin under his bed. It passed to his daughter in 2007 upon his death, and today, this former upstanding member of Napoleon’s body politique remains in her possession.