The clunky title is both intriguing and off-putting, the subtitle quaint and risible -- evoking images of Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman excavating a plot in a downpour ("Young Frankenstein") or possibly Oliver Hardy whacking Stan Laurel's toe in the graveyard dirt ("Habeas Corpus").
In this era of cremations, cryonic storage, and ashes shot into space, grave robbing seems to hail from another age, but news stories periodically unearth incidents of it even today.
It's a shock to open Dickey's book and learn that the skulls of some very prominent people -- composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Joseph Haydn; painter Francisco Goya; Renaissance scholar and theologian Sir Thomas Browne; and scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg -- were dug up, stolen, mutilated, handed from one person to another, and perhaps in some cases mislaid or lost forever. How could this have happened?
The eccentric history of cranioklepty (Dickey coined the term -- from the Greek roots kranion for "head," kleptein for "to steal" -- though deciding on an elegant pronunciation for the neologism is a challenge) as it relates to genius occupies a fairly brief window of time: that period when the shape and size of the cranium was thought to relate directly to intellect and artistic genius.
The 19th century science known as phrenology -- which posited that the human skull conforms to the shape of the brain within, which in turn expresses in physical form one's innate moral and intellectual faculties (crudely, that by feeling the shape of a person's head you could tell whether he or she had great intellectual or creative powers, or was more likely a criminal) -- had a brief but rich heyday. It influenced the thought and writings of the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and especially Walt Whitman, as well as scientists and physicians of the time.
Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a friend and admirer of Haydn's, intended to possess the composer's head long before he died in 1809. He paid a gravedigger to decapitate the body and bring the head, and arranged for others to clean it of its . . . er . . . coverings.
In the ensuing 70 years, Haydn's skull passed through at least three different hands, before ending up with the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. Haydn's tomb is in Eisenstadt, the family seat of the Esterházy family, however; and it was not until 1954 that the skull would be reunited with the rest of the remains -- 145 years after their separation.
The cranium of Haydn's student Beethoven suffered greater indignities. Physicians who performed the autopsy in 1827 botched it and broke the skull. Over time fragments were stolen. By 1863 his grave was in disrepair, so the Society of the Friends disinterred the remains, and a Beethoven admirer named Breuning made off with what was left of the skull, to keep it by his bedside. Fragments were spirited away by another admirer, Romeo Seligmann, then passed to his son Albert. Albert Seligmann died shortly after the end of World War II, and the box of Beethoven skull fragments was found among his effects, which went to his nephew Tom, who sat on them until he succumbed to dementia in the 1980s. They finally ended up at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State.
Dickey mostly tells the stories of these various skulls, their sometime owners and dissectors, and the associated sciences and pseudo-sciences over time, fairly straight. He adopts a largely chronological account, which makes sense in one way, but has him revisiting the skulls and the various men who possessed and/or studied them, repeatedly, throughout the book. This can be confusing, trying to remember who's who, and where Haydn's skull or Beethoven's ear-bone fragments were situated, the last time we checked.
There's no need to belabor the deeper implications; a thoughtful reader will come to them herself. What difference does it make, really, if strangers handle one's skull after one is gone? The legacy of an author or composer is in his or her surviving works, yes? To be read and played by, and beloved of, the living. For those of us not destined for fame, our true legacy is the memories we leave in people's minds, the material works we build, the children we birth and foster.
And yet who is sufficiently materialist, so purely an atheist, not to pause at the thought of one's bones being stared at, handled, and poked, after one is gone?