Readers of this blog may be unaware that I occasionally receive emails from people looking for advice. Most recently, an emailer who refused to leave his name (for obvious reasons) wrote me with a last-ditch request for help. I’m going to post his letter and my response for other readers who may be struggling with a similar problem.
I am an avid reader of your blog, and enjoy your pithy handling of the truth. You see like the sort of person who could be depended upon for wise counsel. Anyway, screw this, let me just get to my question: How would a person go about exhuming a famous body? None of my so-called “friends” seem to have any advice for me on this, other than “get help.” So that’s what I’m doing. I hope you can help me and I look forward to your reply.
Rather than answer your question with a stock template, let me just give you what I would use as a plan for exhuming Nathaniel Hawthorne. Remember, each exhuming-under-false-pretenses case is different. What works for one body may not work for another. So please just use this as a guide.
Yes, I admit, I have thought about exhuming Hawthorne. For a while, it was a real obsession. Sometimes, after reading a particularity delightful passage, a troubling pattern of feeling would be set off. First, I’d experience an incredible, but demanding, joy. I was euphoric: ‘such a fine-wrought feeling towards the world! Such a thin little latticework of perfect humor!” But the euphoria felt uncomfortable, as if it were demanding some action of me. As I writer, you’d think the euphoria would demand my own opus in response--would demand that I rise up as successor to Hawthorne. But it was too uncontrolled a feeling for that. Wordsworth didn’t say “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility” for nothing. The best condition for writing is when all your ideas appear picked-over, forcing a choice among the healthiest of a thin lot. Hawthorne, in these moments, would give my mind the appearance of overabundance, thus making the choice of a single idea impossible. Every thought appeared equally lush--too lush to choose from, and too lush to render in words should you make yourself choose. Euphoria, though a heightened feeling, is actually a great leveler. No thought of mine had the distinction of being higher or lower than another. Sometimes, after reading Hawthorne, the differentiation of ideas, thoughts, and moods all seemed illusionary. I had only a single, perfect thought.
I suppose the nature of a perfect thought is that it is too good for the thinker that thinks it, and therefore my “perfect thought” was really only half perceived in my own mind. It had something to do with the solemn, bittersweet mirth that was to be had by looking upon the world as if it were a darling misguided child. Mostly, it had to do with feeling perfectly aligned with Hawthorne himself. “My mind is in perfect sympathy with Hawthorne’s!” I wanted to shout from the rooftops, shoving aside all those lovers who clamber up there to pronounce their love for so-and-so, as if that’s even close to as shout-worthy. But then, the terror “What next?” Lovers, immediately after shouting their love from the rooftops, can follow up that impulse with a slew of other, equally strong impulses: sex, marriage, children etc. But what follows a triumphant cry of sympathy with Hawthorne? Some action seemed to be demanded; some wild escalation of act and feeling, far outside of the range of mere writing. Here is where the exhuming impulse began.
I began thinking about exhuming Hawthorne both because I wanted some real-life act to follow up my feelings of “perfect sympathy” with Hawthorne, and because sometimes I doubted Hawthorne ever existed. The past--the books, the ideas, history itself--occasionally looks to me to be a background fabricated for our present after the fact. Its as if we appeared on earth all at an instant and some god, force, whatever said to himself: “Shit! Don’t want them to know that I just plopped ‘em here yesterday. Better conjure up some ‘past’ for ‘em to give them something they can all refer to.” Hawthorne was just one of those fabrications, explicitly designed to be moving to someone like me. Seeing some of Hawthorne’s corporal substance would perhaps put this line of thinking to rest. But in other moods, I sometimes think, “Corporal substance? Who needs it? And what the hell would it prove, anyhow?”
But back to your question. If these impulses ever overtake me, I do have a plan to exhume Hawthorne. From the anecdotal and idle research I’ve done, it seems that bodies are exhumed for only a few reasons:
1. To move the body to a more fitting location, I.e. where it should have been originally.
2. To subject it to another autopsy because the original was incomplete, inconclusive, or executed by a corrupt doctor, bent on concealing foul play.
3. Because of some mystery that needs to be cleared up.
If you want to exhume a body, the first order of business is to pick which one of these options look most viable. If you aren’t family, option one can be tough. You can always claim you’re related to the deceased, and then claim you found a letter in his hand demanding that he be interred somewhere else. For those of you who wish to pursue the false claim to blood-relation route, here’s how I’d do it. If I wanted to pretend I was part of Hawthorne’s lineage, I’d try to find some undocumented years in his children’s’ lives. For instance, Julian Hawthorne (Hawthorne’s son) was a schemer and a crook, and landed himself in jail. I’d claim that while in jail, Julian, in keeping with his low-down ways, impregnated a simple prison cook, who happened to be my grandmother. To really verify this, I’d probably need to bribe a historian (to claim there was “some indication that Julian Hawthorne had an illegitimate child“), a prison administrator (who could “find” documents that proved my grandmother worked there during Julian’s stay) and perhaps my grandmother herself, who would have to admit to once being a simple prison cook of easy virtue.
But you really want to limit the amount of people you need to bribe, and I’m afraid this route would involve the most bribing. After convincing the world I was Hawthorne’s heir, the forging of the note would involve a whole new set of bribes. I’d slip the historian another few hundred to claim the note was authentic, and probably have to bribe Hawthorne’s real heirs to keep their mouth shut. And, I imagine there would be legal bribes as well, as simply forging a note that says: “I, Nathaniel Hawthorne, would far prefer a burial anywhere but in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where I would no doubt become little more than a tourist’s curiosity along with the other ‘great minds’ buried there.” probably does not necessarily green-light an exhuming. And a big problem with bribing more than a few people is that you’re bound to run into one self-righteous schlub who has too much “integrity” (read: you lowballed the bribe) for this type of deception.
On to option two. For this option, you need to find indication that the deceased did not die of natural causes. Hawthorne wasted away over a period of a year or so, so I could claim that he was being slowly poisoned over that time. Again, maybe I’d blame this on Julian. I could claim that Julian was anxious to make money off of a “Last Days of Hawthorne” biography, and figured he’d speed along those last days and thus his payday. Hawthorne’s documented physical complaints are so vague that it would be easy to find a poison that’s effects seemed to match the description of Hawthorne’s condition. His stomach complaints and lack of appetite surely correspond with the effects of mercury, deadly nightshade, hemlock or something. And it would be easy and entertaining to scour Julian’s own writings to find isolated phrases indicating resentment towards his father, phrases that indicated, perhaps, a sociopath turn of mind. A few people in the medical and forensic profession might have to be bribed for this. For one thing, I’d have to claim that Hawthorne’s bones would be etched by the poison (as I doubt much soft-tissue still exists), thus making the exhuming the final word on Hawthorne’s death.
But as much as I’d like to give poor Julian Hawthorne some much needed attention (I sometimes check his books at the library and notice only one check-out stamp from twenty years ago) I don’t think pursuing this option would be interesting enough. Exhuming a body under false pretenses is a lengthy process. As dullards like to say about life, its “a journey, not a destination” so you better be sure that the deception itself is going to entertain you for this unknown duration. So on to option three, and the option I would actually choose. If I was to exhume Hawthorne, I would make things way more complicated. Here’s my idea:
Expertise is basically just insisting upon the significance of some obscurity. So, to establish myself as an expert on Hawthorne, and to set the stage for the exhuming, I would use Hawthorne’s childhood “lameness” as my starting point. Anyone familiar with unimportant Hawthornia should know that Hawthorne, as a young boy, hurt his foot, causing a several year long on-and-off bedridden-ness that some biographers credit for incubating Hawthorne’s “fancy.” Even after Hawthorne recovered, his gait and carriage was always a bit peculiar--his head a bit cocked, his stride a bit uneven.
Using this snatch of Hawthorne trivia, I’d claim that Hawthorne’s lameness wasn’t from a foot or leg injury, but was instead evidence of brain-damage. I’d theorize that Hawthorne had a brain injury that not only made him move unevenly, but also resulted in his particularly vivid imagination. In a fall, Hawthorne’s brain was compacted into itself at a critical moment of development. Rather than healing normally or remaining predictably damaged, Hawthorne’s verbal and visual centers became entwined, growing in and around each other. This condition created an imagination that saw pictures in words and words in pictures. Basically, Hawthorne saw the description of an image with the image---there was none of the typical lag in perception that causes us to search for words to describe something. Likewise, Hawthorne was able to read a description and see the described image unfold simultaneously. Words and images overlaid each other, and the only problem Hawthorne had was trying to write for an audience that didn’t have this same ability. “He had to translate--nay, degrade--his brilliance for the masses.”
Next on the agenda would be finding a malleable neurologist who would support this theory, and would insist that verification could easily be found in Hawthorne’s skull. “A mid cranial crack with an indention straddling both hemispheres would indicate the verbal and visual center were most likely collapsed into one.” he’d say, making the case for the exhuming air tight. I’d chime in with “it would be an incredible window into the nature of creativity” and soon enough I’d be watching a crane slowly lifting and swinging a half-rotted casket high above a back-ho dug hole.
All I’d have to do is find a neurologist with the right combination of reputation, insecurity, and undirected mania, waiting to be applied towards a baseless theory of a layperson. I’d start hanging around hospitals or practices or wherever neurologists hang out, quietly observing different doctors until I found my target. I’d look for a doctor with a loose temper, a sense of injustice, an unrequited hope to be a forerunner of something, and not just your garden-variety brain-tinkerer in the trenches.
I’d bride him or charm him, or, more likely, charm him in the act of bribing (What could be more flattering than saying I’m willing to pay for your lies? The poor sap would feel like a real hotshot if even his lies fetch a price). From that point on, it will be all glossy multicolored pictures of brains, all pointers tapping on significant graphics, all expert testimony, all telling Hawthorne quotes and impassioned presentations to the medical/literary communities and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Authority. And of course there’d be the dog-eared ethical debate weighing upsetting the rest of the deceased against solving a mystery. Curiosity would win out, and soon the casket would be lifted from the earth and lowered to above-ground, and then shipped to a forensic scientist where the skull would be gingerly poked and prodded, measured and weighed. But before that, the instigator of this investigation would ask for a few moments alone with the remains. And in these moments, curiously enough, there wouldn’t be any examining of the skull that had been the subject of so much speculation, nor any quiet, respectful silence at the repose of a muse. Instead, should we be given a glimpse, we’d see a young woman writhing on the bones of her predecessor, insensible to anything but her own thought: “Substance. Finally the substance.” Hawthorne, who has alternately described his own art as shadowy, airy, and concerned more with the clouds and sky than the solid earth, hardly seemed to lend himself to the triumph of substance and reality that is exhuming. From the beyond, the past, the imagination, Hawthorne was forced to perform a cameo role as a bit of carbon-based refuse. Whether or not this was a comfort to her is unknown.
When she came to and rearranged the remains to cover her tracks, the neurologist and all the followers of this story would be surprised to see how little she seemed to care about the outcome of the investigation. “Funny” they’d say, “I could hardly keep McFawn’s attention on the results of Hawthorne’s skull-scan. She’s seemed indifferent to the whole enterprise ever since she was alone with the body. How strange.”
Hope this helps.