FOLLOW-UP

Skeleton in the corridor

ROSS LAVER November 10 1986
FOLLOW-UP

Skeleton in the corridor

ROSS LAVER November 10 1986

Skeleton in the corridor

FOLLOW-UP

At the age of four he could read Latin. By the time of his death in 1832 his daring ideas on social reform had ensured him a place among the great thinkers who would shape the 20th century. But British philosopher Jeremy Bentham sought a more specific kind of immortality: in his will he asked that his remains be preserved, dressed in his own clothes and put on public display. Now, 154 years after Bentham’s death at the age of 84, his padded skeleton still sits in a glass-fronted case, cane in hand, in a corridor of University College in London, England. Said Stephen Conway, a historian at the college: “After you have been here a while, it just seems like part of the furniture.”

Bentham himself intended his remains to fulfil a loftier purpose. The father of what became known as the utilitarian school of philosophy, Bentham rejected organized religion and wrote that each person should conduct his or her life in a way that would produce, in his famous phrase, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” To that end, Bentham himself determined to donate his body for anatomical study—a practice then widely opposed. But he decided to go a step further: his corpse would be made into what he called an “auto-icon,” a preserved statue which would continue to play some part in life.

In accordance with his wishes, Bentham’s body was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then cleaned, fitted with a wax head and seated on display at University College, founded by Bentham’s followers in 1826 as an alternative to the established universities. The college is careful to respect every detail of Bentham’s will. His remains are still taken to important college functions, and last June they were present at the founding of the International Bentham Society, dedicated to promoting Bentham’s life and work. Said Sir James Lighthill, provost of University College: “It is good for the general morale and spirit of the college to have Bentham here with us.” But, he added, “I suppose we should be grateful that the idea of turning one’s body into a statue never caught on.”

— ROSS LAVER in London