Last month, I came face to face with death. The deathly face in question belonged to the great utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. His preserved head, considered so gruesome that it was hidden from public display for the past 40 years, looks like decaying leather—not unlike how your head will one day look, before it eventually decomposes into nothing at all.
Too real? In the centuries since Bentham’s death, society has embraced many of his once-radical ideas, including women’s rights, gay rights, and the value of donating one’s body to science. But most people are still catching up to Bentham’s willingness to confront death.
“We are almost comically bad at [confronting death],” says Adam Buben, philosophy professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who’s written on the philosophy of death. “We are great at thinking and talking about it in such a way that it doesn’t really touch us. We see images, hear stories, and tell jokes about death constantly, but this isn’t the same thing as thinking about oneself and death at the same time.”
It’s common today to couch the end of life in empty metaphors, embrace either religious or secular spirituality around funerals, and distract ourselves with movies that make endless, meaningless slaughter both entertaining and shallow. All the while, we desperately ignore the reality that ourselves and everyone we know will one day die.
Bentham’s decision to be preserved after death was a striking rejection of the era’s religious theories of resurrection and the continuing existence of the soul. Such honesty continues to challenges secular spiritual depictions of death today. “He’s saying this is all there is: The body,” says Philip Schofield, history professor and director of the Bentham Project at University College London (UCL).
The philosopher was the first person to insist that his body be donated to science and dissected, says Schofield. Though others at the time were dissected, “it was regarded as additional punishment,” he adds, as this was believed to prevent bodily resurrection.
After he was dissected, Bentham requested that his body be re-assembled, preserved, and dressed in his own clothes: He was turned into an “auto-icon.” The preservation process kept the head in tact but ruined Bentham’s lifelike appearance, and so his body was fitted with a wax model of his head. This auto-icon has long been on display at UCL. Bentham’s real head, which was for decades considered too disturbing for public viewing, finally joined the exhibition this October.
Though the philosopher’s body was never wheeled out to dinner parties with friends as he hoped, the auto-icon did “attend” the 150th anniversary of the founding of the college. Bentham was marked as “present but not voting”. Meanwhile, his head has been largely kept in storage ever since October 1975, when it was briefly stolen by students from King’s College, London and returned after a ransom of £10 was paid to the charity Shelter.
Why should the living face Bentham’s corpse today? “When you see a dead body, you have a view of the person that the person cannot have. They’ve been denied that, you no longer share the world with them,” says Taylor Carman, philosophy professor at Columbia University. “It’s a reminder that you will also be cut off from other people and from the world when you die. It’s fundamentally disturbing.”
Since everyone experiences their own death as “the impending loss of everything,” a visual representation of death—whether skeleton or auto-icon—cannot truly capture our own demise, notes Carman. But a visceral experience of death can prompt us to honestly consider our own mortality—Buddhist monks, for example, meditate in front of corpses to remind themselves of the impermanence of life.
The philosopher Heidegger believed that impending death is an essential feature of human existence. “Heidegger saw death as a pervasive feature of your being in the world and not just an unfortunate event that happens at the very end,” says Carman. “He thought we can’t really understand ourselves unless we see ourselves as finite.” After all, ”If my time is finite, what’s important and how do we live?”
Heidegger and Bentham have different notions of honesty around death. While Heidegger believed that anxiety about death was inevitable in life, Bentham’s point was to “demystify our mortality and finitude and render it tractable,” says Carman. Both, though, were considerably more honest about death than most. And this honesty makes life all the more meaningful.
“Things can only be important to us if they’re fragile and vulnerable and contingent,” says Carman. “It’s not just a matter of the clock ticking. As Yeats put it, ‘Things fall apart.’”