Jeremy Bentham: Still Not Absent After 150 Years

Jeremy Bentham is still seen around University College in London, going to meetings despite the fact that he is currently over 261 years old, making him the oldest person to ever be officially marked “present” at the place of higher learning’s very formal board meetings.  He has also been dead since 1832.

Originally born in 1748, Bentham found himself quickly molded for life as a philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, paving the way for many modern ideas such as feminism, individual economic freedom, free trade, usury, and the abolishment of the death penalty.  Those who loved (and hated) his ideas found themselves often captivated by his long articulate speeches.  Bentham was also considered by many to be a sentimentalist.  He would often respond in his later years to people mentioning the many young women he courted in his youth by saying with tears in his eyes, “Take me forward, I entreat you to the future – do not let me go to the past.”

One of the most interesting aspects, however, of Jeremy’s life is his death.  Or rather how his body has been spending it for the past 151 years.  Jeremy ordered in his will that he be stuffed and placed on display, preserved forever in a wooden cabinet called an “Auto-Icon.”  Naturally his death happened around the spiritualist movement when many modern ideas of science were merging with older mysteries of death, generating several bizarre ideas about the subject.  In addition to this, after his death when The University volunteered their services as a caretaker for Mr. Bentham’s remains, they decided he was an important enough member of the University that he should be present for meetings.  Twice, at the 100th and then again at the 150th anniversary of the college’s opening, Bentham was wheeled in to the meetings and marked “in attendance, but not voting” in the decision making process.

Bentham also, however, had his share of difficulties in his new home.  On several occasions, as a right of passage college pranksters would remove Bentham’s head and steal it, only to have it turn up at a later date.  Eventually, the macabre vandalism was considered a large enough disrespect to his memory, that Bentham’s head was permanently removed and placed in a secure location away from the rest of his body.  Instead, a wax head now adorns the body, giving the corpse an even more eerie look.

It’s interesting that such a strong proponent of humanitarianism and so many ideals that eventually caught on to modern society would not only allow, but actually even request such odd treatment of his remains.  Then again, several famous people have been transported, put on display, and posthumously observed for hundreds of years.  Lincoln, for example, was dug up several times and was even stolen from his grave before eventually becoming entombed permanently in his current resting place in Springfield Illinois.  Regardless, it’s difficult to balance the uncomfortable memory of death many of us feel with the respect required for men such as Bentham when their bodies are staring out through wax doll heads and dead eyes fashioned by the living.