6 Restless Corpses

This article has nothing to do with the supernatural; it's about real bodies that just can't seem to rest in peace, or at least had to wait for their chance.
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A couple of recent cases raise the question of how much respect a dead body should be given. The mummy of King Tut was taken from his tomb in 1922 after 3,000 years. Since then, it's been robbed, dismembered, scanned, and finally displayed to the public last year. Padre Pio was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Now, the church wants to exhume his body 40 years after his death for a display this spring. His family is prepared to sue the local bishop to prevent this action. And you are of course familiar with the corpse of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, still on display200_lenins_corpse.jpg at the Kremlin as it has been since his death in 1924. There was a movement to remove the body from public display after the fall of the Soviet Union, but that idea never came to fruition. Tourists still visit him at the Lenin Mausoleum at Red Square in Moscow.

There are quite a few other cases of corpses that were left above ground, open to the public eye. Some images may be disturbing to the sensitive.

1. Ötzi the Iceman

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Ötzi had been lying in a glacier in the Alps for 53 centuries before he was discovered in 1991. His corpse was damaged and vandalized before his age was determined. Since then, he has been studied extensively, from x-rays to DNA analysis to microscopic identification of his stomach contents. Scientists believe Ötzi was murdered, by an arrow or a blow to the head. He and his belongings have been on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy since 1998.

2. Mojo the Mummy

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A black teenager was found dead near the railroad tracks in Calvert, Texas in the early 1920s. The local funeral home embalmed him, or possibly overembalmed him, and placed him in a coffin with a wire screen covering. When the boy's family was located a couple of months later, they were presented with a bill for $108 for the embalming. They didn't have the money, so left the body in the hands of the funeral home. The cause of death was never determined, and his name was lost over time. The body mummified and remained in the back room of the mortuary, which changed ownership several times over the next 80 years. Local gamblers considered him to be a lucky charm, and nicknamed the mummy Mojo. In 2001, Calvert elected a new mayor, Briscoe Cain, who made it his personal mission to give Mojo a proper burial. Local businesses chipped in for expenses, and Mojo was finally buried in 2002.

3. Julia Pastrana

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Julia Pastrana was born in 1834 with hypertrichosis terminalis, meaning her entire body was covered with hair several inches long. She also had a deformed mouth with huge teeth, leading one doctor of the day to declare that she was "˜a hybrid between human and orangutan'. She was exhibited by Theodor Lent, who eventually married her. At age 26, Julia gave birth in Moscow to a son who was also covered with hair, and who died within two days. Julia herself died five days later.

Her husband sold the bodies to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University, who embalmed them and began exhibiting the mummies. Lent, not one to pass up an opportunity, demanded the bodies back and put them on exhibit in England. Lent toured with the mummies or alternately rented out to other exhibitions for years. He married another woman with hypertrichosis and exhibited her as Zenora Pastrana, Julia's "sister", at times along with the mummies. After Lent's death, Zenora gave the mummies away, and ownership changed hands several times. They were almost destroyed by Nazis during World War II, but the current owner, Mr. Lund, convinced the authorities of their profitability. Lund, and then his son, took the mummies on occasional tours until 1973, when they were placed in storage in Oslo. An act of vandalism destroyed the baby's body in 1976, and Julia herself was stolen in 1979. In 1990, it was discovered that a found corpse which had been stored at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo without identification was indeed Julia Pastrana. By all accounts, she is still there.

Update: Pastrana's body was finally repatriated to Mexico in February 2013 and buried near her hometown.

4. The Cadaver Synod

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The Dark Ages were a time of upheaval and political struggles within the Roman Catholic church. The pope known as Formosus made plenty of enemies before he ascended to the papacy in 891 AD. After his death in 896, he was succeeded by Boniface VI, then by Stephen VI. In January of 897, Pope Stephen VI (also known as Stephen VII) had the body of Formosus exhumed and ordered to stand trial for various church crimes. Formosus' corpse, which had spent the previous seven months interred in St. Peter's Basilica, was dressed in papal vestments and propped into a chair to attend the proceedings. A teenage deacon was assigned to stand behind the corpse and speak for him.

The trial was completely dominated by Stephen VII, who overawed the assemblage with his frenzied tirades. While the frightened clergy silently watched in horror, Stephen VII screamed and raved, hurling insults at and mocking the rotting corpse. Occasionally, when the furious torrent of execrations and maledictions would die down momentarily, the deacon would stammer out a few words weakly denying the charges. When the grotesque farce concluded, Formosus was convicted on all counts by the court.

As part of the sentence, the corpse was stripped and buried in a common grave. Within a few days it was dug up again and thrown into the Tiber River, where it was retreived and hidden by a monk. The "Cadaver Synod", as it came to be known, led to the downfall of Stephen VI. In November of the same year, Pope Theodore II ordered the body of Formosus reburied at St. Peters with normal papal honors.

5. Khambo Lama Itigilov

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Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was the Pandido Khambo Lama, leader of all Russian Buddhists of the Tibetan tradition from 1911 til his death in 1927. He was interred sitting in the Lotus postion as he requested. Itigilov had predicted that his body was "incorruptable" and stipulated that his corpse be exhumed and examined years after his death. Buddhist monks monitored the corpse over the years, noting that the body, which had not been embalmed, did not decay. In 2002, he was officially disinterred and examined by monks and scientists. Some devotees claim that Itigilov is not dead, but in a state of nirvana. Scientists attribute his condition to an excessive amount of bromine in the tissue. Since 2005, Itigilov's body has been in a glass case at the Buddist monastery Ivolginsky Datsan in Siberia. He is shown to the public on seven Buddhist holidays every year.

6. Jeremy Bentham

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Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and social reformer who died in 1832 at age 84. His will stated that his body should be preserved and dressed and seated in a wooden box, so that his disciples and friends could meet around it. This display box is called the Auto-Icon. The preservation process went "disastrously wrong" and the head was replaced with a wax facsimile. The Auto-Icon is housed at the University College London since 1850. When this picture was taken, Bentham's real head was displayed on the floor between his feet. After several incidences of theft, Bentham's original head is now stored elsewhere.

Further reading: 6 More Restless Corpses and 6 Restless Corpses: Heads of State Edition

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February 25, 2008 - 11:59pm
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