Requiescat in pace, rest in peace or R.I.P. are commonly inscribed on gravestones. This simple epitaph conveys the wish that whatever turmoil or troubles beset the deceased in life, that in death they are left behind. No matter what they did in life, or how violent their end, we hope that they have eternal rest.
But not everyone gets to fulfil this simple wish. History is littered with examples of post-mortem revenge, humiliation, violence and display. Corpses have been made to pay for the sins of their departed masters, bones held to account for mortal transgressions.
Others are denied the peace and privacy of the grave or the fiery finality of cremation. Their fate is to be preserved and exhibited; their embalmed bodies become icons that imbue their remains with almost religious significance.
This is the first part in a three-part special featuring those individuals for whom death was just the start of a new life.
No matter how powerful a person is in life, they cannot always control what happens to their remains in death. Sometimes an individual’s death is not enough to erase their mortal sins. The first part of this morbid trilogy tells the stories of four individuals whose corpses were subjected to post-mortem punishment.
In the confused and dying last days of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler used his brief moments of lucidity to plan for his death. A bullet from his own gun would ensure he avoided capture by the Russians. After this, a makeshift cremation would guard against his remains being captured and displayed by the surging Red Army.
This wasn’t the end he had planned for. Had Hitler died anytime before the disastrous reversals of 1944 and 1945, he would have received the most elaborate funeral pageant that the Third Reich could mount. It would have been the kind of choreographed spectacle that the regime specialised in.
Instead, his body was lifted out of the bomb blasted bunker and placed in a shell crater in the Chancellery gardens. Both Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were doused in petrol and lit. This brief inferno was the nearest the funeral came to the torchlight processions of the Nazi party’s rallies.
The charred and powdered remains of the cremated Fuhrer would then be blown across the rubble-strewn capital, free from the threat of Soviet capture. Unfortunately for Hitler’s plans, the burning was not long or fierce enough to completely destroy his body. The remains fell into the hands of the advancing Red Army and soon found their way to the KGB.
His remains would join those of Eva Braun, the Goebbels family, General Krebs and Hitler’s beloved dogs on an epic burial journey across Germany. They would be interred, disinterred and reburied with alarming regularity until a final decision was taken in 1970 to destroy them for good. The KGB report records:
“The remains were burnt on a bonfire outside the town of Shoenebeck, 11 kilometers away from Magdeburg, then ground into ashes, collected and thrown into the Biederitz River”.
Another constant rumour concerns skull and jaw fragments that supposedly fell into Soviet hands. It is impossible to confirm or deny that these fragments exist, but, if they are genuine, it is a pleasing irony that they are kept in Russian hands.
Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin
It is common for children to resent their mother’s new lovers. New father figures have particular difficulty finding acceptance. But few step-children are in a position to do anything other than sulk, act out and generally make a nuisance of themselves.
Paul I, Tsar and Emperor of All the Russians, was not a typical boy. His hatred of his mother’s favourites and lovers was intense and long-lasting and, when he succeeded Catherine II in 1796, he was able to extract revenge.
The main target of his hatred was Gregory Potemkin. Potemkin was Catherine II’s greatest lover, possibly her morganatic husband and certainly a lifelong trusted advisor. He lent his name to the famous Potemkin Villages and to the Battleship Potemkin, whose sailors would later play a crucial and ironically anti-monarchist role in the Russian Revolution.
Unfortunately for Paul, Potemkin had died in 1791. Paul would not be cheated out of revenge and instead ordered his tomb to be opened, his body dug out of its grave and his bones scattered. He also tried to undo Potemkin’s influence – the city of Grigoriopol was renamed Tchernyi (meaning ‘Black’ from its location near the Black Sea) and Potemkin’s palace was converted into barracks.
For many centuries regicide, the killing of a king, was a particular heinous act. As god’s anointed representative on earth, the slaying of a sovereign was a sin against god.
The English Civil War was a particular bitter struggle between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. It culminated in the trial and execution of Charles I.
There were 59 Regicides who signed the king’s death warrant. These simple strokes of the pen would return to haunt their authors on the restoration of the monarchy and the triumphant return of Charles II. Ten would face a traitor’s death, being hung, drawn and quartered, 19 were imprisoned for life and 20 fled overseas.
Particular animosity was reserved for those Regicides who had already died and, in particular, for Oliver Cromwell. As Lord Protector and leader of the Commonwealth, he was seen as the ringleader of the republic.
Cromwell was attained for high treason and all his property (or, more properly, the property of his estate) was confiscated. His remains were exhumed and he was hung in his shroud at Tyburn before his skull was impaled on a 20-foot pike above Westminster Hall. Here it stayed for the next 25 years as a grim reminder of the consequences of treason.
There was still no peace for the former Lord Protector. A storm tossed the skull down to the ground, and it was only buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge in 1960.
For centuries, heresy was second only to treason in the pecking order of diabolical crimes and sins. To modern eyes, Wycliffe was a good, sensible and honest preacher who wanted to purify the church and bring the word of god to the people. To the state and church establishment, he was a dangerous revolutionary bringing heretical thoughts to destabilise the peace.
Amazingly, Wycliffe died a natural death, succumbing to a stroke on 28 December 1384. During his life he had retained the favour of the court and Parliament, and was therefore protected from the church hierarchy. This protection vanished after his death and in the wake of great protestant revolts in England and Europe.
The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe to be a heretic. The decrees were dramatic – his books would be burnt and his remains were to be exhumed and burnt. It took years for the Council’s wishes to be carried out, but, finally, in 1428 his bones were piled on the pyre and reduced to ashes. His ashes were tossed into the River Swift, his mortal remains completely destroyed.