April 10

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How Jeremy Bentham Lost his Head by Carlyn Beccia

If philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) could see the average cost of a funeral today, he would be rolling in his grave (if he was buried in a grave). Which is why, whenever I hear someone complain about the cost of living, I like to remind them to stay upright — dropping dead is really expensive. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows funeral and burial costs are up 227% in 31 years.

 

Because I love making infographics, I made one to illustrate this point….

 

Bentham would not have been happy with these numbers. He believed this whole business of death… well, it shouldn’t be a business. As the father of Utilitarianism, Bentham thought no one should profit from anyone’s death except society in general. Furthermore, Utilitarianism taught that all actions, even what someone does with their lifeless corpse, should be for the common good.

 

So, Bentham came up with a plan that was pretty daring for its day: Instead of burying his body in the cold, hard earth with a bunch of weepy friends and family standing over him, he would have his body preserved so future generations may learn from his “auto-icon.”

 

Now, there are three reasons why Bentham deserves immediate respect. First off, an auto-icon is a totally made up word and people who make up words are genius.[1]

 

Second, Bentham’s thinking was oddly enlightening, especially for its time. His “auto-icon” was his dead body designed to resemble him when alive. Bentham envisioned our yards not littered with garden gnomes and tacky bird baths, but instead a garden of preserved corpses acting as statues to commemorate the people who had passed on.[2]

 

Third, the man was prepared. He didn’t just make idle boasts about his wacky afterlife plans, but had very specific preservation instructions to be carried out by his friend, Dr. Southwood Smith. He even kept a pair of glass eyes in his pocket for use in his auto-icon in case he unexpectedly croaked. (Sometimes he brought them out at dinner parties to impress guests.)[3]

 

And most of his plan was carried out. Well, most of it….

 

 

Per his instructions, Bentham’s soft bits were donated to science so they could be dissected. The hard bits like his skeleton were assembled with copper wire and then stuffed like a sofa beneath his favorite black suit (this is why he is a bit lumpy in places). And then Bentham was propped into a sitting position in a glass case with his favorite cane, “Dapple.” Everything went swimmingly well, except for one part.

 

The head…

 

Bentham wanted his head to be preserved using the mummification techniques of the Maori of New Zealand. But here is the problem when you are practicing Maori mummification: you really should hire a Maori for the job. He did not. Things went horribly wrong.

 

Well, I will let you be the judge…

 

Of course, I had to have at least one food reference in this post.

 

To fix the botched head job, an artist made a wax model of his head instead. As for his real head, it was put at his feet.[4]

 

Bentham is looking a little more Madame Tussauds here.

 

And thus, Bentham’s auto-icon was complete and put on display at The University College London so he could watch over his colleagues for eternity.

 

Bentham’s head (of course) continued more post humorous hi-jinx beyond the grave. In 1975, his head was stolen by some prankster King College students and ransomed for 100 pounds. Rumor has it that those naughty King College students even played football with his head.[5]

 

In October of 2017, the head was put on display alongside Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in a special exhibition at the University College London, called What Does it Mean to Be Human: Curating Heads at UCL.[6]  Last month, Bentham made his first journey to America. His auto-icon will be part of The Met Breuer exhibition “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now),”

 

Bentham believed the most important thing you can leave behind is a legacy that makes the world a better place, even if it is something as simple as a few laughs. And with his auto-icon on display for all the world to wonder at, I would say he accomplished that goal.

 

Carlyn Beccia is an author and illustrator of several cheery books. Beccia has requested her body be resold as fertilizer because she would like to accomplish the seemingly insurmountable task of finally keeping a plant alive. Her latest book, They Lost Their Heads, follows the adventures of famous body parts in history.

 

[1] The word is in the Oxford Dictionary but the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is still holding out.

[2] Actually, I think garden gnomes and Grandma’s preserved head could totally work together.

[3] This will only work on some people.

[4] This seems like an old concession when you bungle someone’s mummification.

[5] If you read my chapter on body decomposition in THEY LOST THEIR HEADS then you will know that this is highly improbable. A decomposing head would break apart like a rotten melon.

[6] Jeremy’s head has since undergone DNA analysis so science can further discover clues about the great philosopher. Historians have long theorized that Bentham was autistic and his DNA should confirm suspicions once and for all.