The Spirit of Jeremy Bentham
By Nicholas J Booth, on 19 October 2012
Looking through the Jeremy Bentham archives I came across an interesting letter relating to a request for help from the Devonshire Inn Chess Club, Oakhampton, Devon. I have reproduced the letter in full below.
Originally addressed to the President of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
2 June, 1993.
I write to you on a rather delicate matter, and seek your professional advice as a medical man.
I have for many years been an admirer of the nineteenth century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who as I am sure you know disapproved of cremation or burial, and suggested instead that the bodies of deceased loved ones should be preserved as an “auto-icon” in a lifelike state and mounted in a public place. He donated his own body to the University College, London, where he now sits in a glass case in the South Cloisters. You can visit him most days between 10.00am and 4.00 pm.
This brings me to the point of my enquiry. The fact is, our secretary Colonel Polhill is no longer in the first flush of youth. An active member of the M.C.C. for over 20 years, he can still be observed daily walking his dog, and calling in to the Devonshire Inn for a half. He is dearly loved by all, but we are beginning to see certain signs. Quite likely the old soak will outlive the rest of us, but we feel that we need to make some provision.
The Colonel is away at present visiting relatives in Cheltenham Spa; in his absence, we have had the opportunity to discuss the establishment of a lasting memorial. There is a cottage opposite The Devonshire Inn owned by the landlord, and he has agreed to commission a complete replica of the bar on the ground floor. Our idea is that when the Colonel finally departs this life, we will preserve his body; although he will have “shed this mortal coil” he will live on amongst us. His perfectly preserved body will still sit on the sea chest by the fire; as other regulars depart one by one, they will join him in the cottage.
Russell and Dennis, two true Devonian rustics will be mounted at the bar; I myself hope to be placed in a replica of my chair in the corner (if I am so honoured on my passing!). We have thought of tape recording each of these characters while they are still with us, so that we can really bring this “tableau” to life. Discreetly placed microphones will relay a recording of their actual conversations. Personally, I feel that this would be a bit macabre, but others are insistent.
There is considerable enthusiasm for this proposal, but unfortunately we do not have the medical knowledge to carry it out. Can you advise us on the best way of preserving human bodies? I appreciate that this might not be your field, but I am hopeful that if you cannot suggest the method yourself, you might be able to recommend someone who can. Should I approach a taxidermist, or do they only work with animals?
There is a further difficulty, however. While the people mentioned above are fairly sedentary characters, there are in our midst some very active customers. I am thinking in particular of Tim the cricketer, Paddy the washing machine man, and the Fruit Kate, none of whom can sit still for a minute. In order to achieve a life like appearance, we will have to allow for the articulation of limbs, and possibly some kind of railway track through the bar. I shall be seeking advice from engineers on this subject, but this will have to be taken into account in the method of preservation. We don’t want arms snapping off if the bodies are too rigid, or heads sinking into chests if they are too soft!
I appreciate that this is a somewhat unusual request, but I would be most grateful for any advice which you feel you might be able to give.
In pen at the top of the page
‘Dear Tanya, many thanks for your assistance- The spirit of Jeremy Bentham lives with us in Devon!! Binkie’
There is no record of the President of the Royal College of General Practitioners reply, nor do we have on record how or if UCL was able to help. I rang the Devonshire Arms earlier this week and I am sorry to report that the chess club no longer meet.