Jeremy Bentham: Auto-Icon

Auto-icon (for web)

Auto-Icon; or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living. A Fragment. From the Mss. of Jeremy Bentham (not published), 1832


VARIOUS are the means by which animal bodies have been preserved for ages. Bruce speaks of the bodies of men which he found in the torrid regions of Africa: and Acerbi mentions the preservation of part of the body of a Mammoth in the ice of the poles. Human bodies were discovered in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. In rocks, antediluvian animals are often seen; and from boghs, impregnated with tannine matter, beings of the human race have been not unfrequently brought to light.

Every fact of this sort furnishes valuable materials for thought: but all these facts are the result of accident – not of intention. Those who  lived contemporaneously with the lifetime of these remains thought not of futurity, or of any use of which the dead might become to the living.

In process of time, however, the dead have been turned by the living to beneficial account. Their bodies, delivered to anatomists, have become important subjects for physiological, chirurgical, and medical study. From the examination of the insensible dead, alleviation and healing have been communicated to the susceptible living: and in this, the groundwork is laid of more extensive benefits.

These cases are exceptions; for, generally, in the present state of things, our dead relations are a source of evil – and not of good: the fault is not theirs, but ours.

They are nuisances – and we make them so: they generate infectious disease; they send forth the monster, Typhus, to destroy; – we may prevent this. Why do we not prevent it?

They levy on us needless contributions: undertaker, lawyer, priest – ostentation, present a compensation: but in the case of the poor, often are the savings of a family thrown into the grave, – relations left destitute, creditors defrauded.

So much for evil done – and now for good prevented: of the dead a certain number might have served the living: knight’s service, no – what end of utility is in that? but surgeon’s service – yes! – and the utility is immense.

Immense as it is, far wider is the field of possible usefulness. As in the progress of time, instruction has been given to make ‘every man his own broker,’ or ‘every man his own lawyer:’ so now may every man be his own statue. Every man is his best biographer. This is a truth, whose recognition has been followed by volumes of most delightful instruction. Auto-Icon – is a word I have created. It is self-explanatory.

Two objects have been proposed: 1. a transitory, which I shall call anatomical, or dissectional: 2. a permanent, – say a conservative, or statuary. (…)

For many a year the subject has been a favourite one at my table. I have disposed of my own body after death. By that disposal I shall have made to the fund of human happiness a contribution, more or less considerable. This is no hasty, – no recent determination. In 1769, on coming of age, I left my body for dissection. The will was deposited in the hands of Chamberlain Clark, at whose death it was returned to the testator, when not only its contents, but its existence had escaped the testator’s memory.

As regards anatomical purposes, one body serves for instruction nearly as well as another; but the head of each individual is peculiar to him, and, when properly preserved, is better than a statue.

The usage of the New Zealanders in reference to the preservation of their friends, is scarcely unknown to any one in Great Britain.

Rambling over the whole field of thought and action, – not to speak specially of that part which constitutes the field of art and science, – in quest of matter and means for adding to the common stock of human happiness, it occurred to me that civilized man might be benefited by an application of this savage ingenuity. (…) Experiments have been making in this country, which promise complete success, by the slow exhaustion of the moisture from the human head. Specimens exist in the College of Physicians. In colour only is there any considerable change; and colour my be easily supplied.

The eyes present no difficulty. Eyes have long been manufactured not distinguishable from those which nature makes.

It is not proposed to coerce people into the adoption of Auto-Iconism; but that, with the consent of parties concerned, the mass of matter which death has created, be disposed of with a view to the felicity of mankind, – in a word, to the best advantage, – the comparatively incorruptible part converted to an Auto-Icon, – the soft and corruptible parts employed for the purpose of anatomical instruction, (…).

What resemblance, what painting, what statue of a human being can be so like him, as in the character of the Auto-Icon, he or she will be to himself or herself. Is not identity preferable to similitude? (…)

Our churches are ready-provided receptacles for Auto-Icons, – provided for all classes, – for rich and poor.

There would no longer be needed monuments of stone or marble, – there would be no danger to health from the accumulating of corpses, – and the use of churchyards would gradually be done away. (…) At Brighton, and other places on the sea-coast of England, the walls of houses are faced by globular pebbles, embedded in mortar; such a wall presents to the imagination an appearance not very different to that of a wall composed of head-length Auto-Icons. (…)

It would diminish the horrors of death, by getting rid of its deformities: it would leave the agreeable associations, and disperse the disagreeable.

Of the de mortuis nil nisi bonum, it would be the best application: it would extract from the dead only that which is good, – that which would contribute to the happiness of the living.

It would set curiosity in motion, – virtuous curiosity. (…)

Entire museums of Auto-Icons would be formed.



All images of Jeremy Bentham © UCL Special Collections

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

I have disposed of my own body after death. By that disposal I shall have made to the fund of human happiness a contribution, more or less considerable.