I’ve been reading the EXCELLENT book ‘Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud’ by Peter Watson, and came upon this section where he talks about The Society for Mutual Autopsy.
Wikipedia has this to say about it:
The Society of Mutual Autopsy or la Société d’autopsie mutuelle, was organized on October 19, 1876 by members of the Society of Anthropology of Paris. Its purpose was to facilitate research on any links between personality & ability and brain morphology by creating a system whereby members’ bodies, upon death, would be donated to the Society for study.
The primary tool used by the Society to organize these donations was a sort of living will which accomplished two main tasks. The first was to make clear the intention of the donor to have his or her body delivered to the Society upon death. The second was to present to the Society a description of the donor: their personality, skills, habits, faults, etc. to allow for more complete research by the Society on the connection between these and brain morphology.
Though little-known outside of anthropological circles until recently, the Society of Mutual Autopsy has been the subject of some academic study, and is most notably featured in the 2003 book The End of the Soul by historian Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Anyways, I’m surprised that wikipedia doesn’t mention what Watson writes:
“This was a group (of anthropologists mainly) who were so concerned to prove that there was no soul that they all bequeathed their bodies to the society, so that they could be dissected and examined, to kill off ideas of where the soul might be located. They held dinners where the food was served on prehistoric pottery or the cavities of human and, in one case, giraffe skulls, to emphasize that there was nothing special about human remains, that they were no different from animal remains.” 1
…I mean, the only time I’ve heard of people drinking from the human skulls is…barbarians (?), and Ed Gein. But here are some intellectuals having a formal dinner, and OH, it just so happens they’re drinking from the skull of their associate who died, not two weeks earlier. How quaint!
p.s. I honestly do find this quaint…
1. Watson, P. Ideas : a history of thought and invention, from fire to Freud. (Harper Perennial: New York, 2006).
Image taken from here.