Picking up where biographers tend to leave off, Edwin Murphy performs an amusing feat of necrobiography in After the Funeral: The Posthumous Adventures of Famous Corpses. As a Greek scholar, Murphy is well equipped to appreciate the tragicomic indignities that have visited the cadavers of some of Western culture’s most celebrated figures. Voltaire’s brain was boiled by an apothecary, stored in a jam pot, and later lost. Louis XIV’s heart was eaten by an intrepid English scientist. William the Conqueror’s gluttony backfired on him at his funeral when he was forced into an undersize stone coffin and his stomach and bowels burst, releasing a deathly stench that put the kibosh on his memorial service.
Although heads and hearts are common objects of posthumous plunder, Murphy’s section on bodies contains some truly mind-boggling anecdotes. Director Raoul Walsh is said to have snatched actor John Barrymore’s barely cold body from a funeral home and seated it on Errol Flynn’s sofa. ”Errol came in…let out a piercing scream, and ran out of the house,” Walsh reported. From behind an oleander bush, Flynn yelled at Walsh, ”Get him out of the house, you crazy Irish bastard, before I have a heart attack!”
”When I started this book,” writes Murphy, ”I imagined that I would be able to find a limited number of interesting stories about the dead bodies of famous people. Instead I found hundreds, not all of which I was able to include.” Clearly, a sequel to After the Funeral is in order. With the dirt still fresh on Jesse James’ pillaged grave as DNA experts attempt to prove the outlaw didn’t fake his own death, Murphy has his work dug up for him.