English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of utilitarianism. The philosophy espouses the idea that each one should do the things that will result in the most total happiness. Considering that was his belief, one has to question his insistence about how this would play out for the countless people who would see the result of his Last Will and Testament.
Bentham was a bit of an eccentric. He delighted in using unnecessarily-complex words, and he gave his walking stick a name. It was his planning for his death, however, that clinched his place among history’s most eccentric fellows.
For the ten years leading up to his death, Bentham carried two glass eyes around with him at all times. These were to be used in carrying out his final instructions, which, in summary, included:
- that invitations be sent out view the public dissection of his body;
- that after the dissection, his remains be preserved by mummification;
- that his mummified body be put on public display, dressed in one of his black suits, and seated on one of his chairs;
- that his preserved body preside over future gatherings of his friends and disciples; and
- that “mourning rings” — 26 in total — be given to close friends. The rings featured a silhouette of his bust and strand of his hair. John Stuart Mill was one of his friends who received a ring.
His executor tried to carry out all the terms of Bentham’s will. Unfortunately, the mummification process did not preserve the philosopher’s head quite as well as one would have hoped. It ended up looking like Dick Van Dyke, after staying out in the sun way too long. Instead of running the risk of freaking out those of weaker dispositions, a wax replica of his head, embedded with his own hair, was placed on the top of the mummified corpse.
The finished product went on display in a large, ornate viewing case, with “Jeremy Bentham” carved at the top and “Auto-Icon” as the title for the exhibit. It has been on display at University College London, with the mummified head on the floor between Bentham’s legs. That’s how the exhibit remained until 1975 when a group of students kidnapped the head (presumably because they felt the act would result in their maximum happiness) and demanded £100 for charity. The university paid £10, and the head of the great moral philosopher was returned. His head now resides in a locked, climate-controlled storeroom at the university.
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