P.T. Barnum was a politician, a circus promoter, a cheerful fraud. If his conscience ever bothered him, history does not record it, but perhaps he salved his soul by attending church. Barnum was a Universalist; Tufts University was the first Universalist college in America. And so, as a wealthy promoter of his sect (Barnum’s tract, Why I Am a Universalist, sold 100,000 copies in the first three years after its publication in 1890), Barnum provided Tufts University with Barnum Hall. Being P.T. Barnum, however, he filled the hall with an elephant: Jumbo, whose very name was synonymous with size. Jumbo had been hit by a train in 1885; never one to turn down an attraction, Barnum had Jumbo stuffed and took his body on a world tour. When he returned home, he donated Jumbo and a number of other effects to Tufts, where they quietly sat for decades. (Students placed pennies in Jumbo’s trunk to ensure luck on tests.) In 1975, Barnum Hall burnt down; a quick-thinking university employee managed to salvage some of Jumbo’s mortal remains, however, and today Jumbo retains a place of honor in a school safe, where his ashes are occasionally taken out (in their ceremonial peanut butter jar) and given to coaches for luck before the Tufts Jumbos take on rival teams. It’s a hard life, being a dead celebrity. Being interred on campus isn’t so bad; utlitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham left his body to be displayed by University College London. His motives were unclear (a moral lesson? an attempt to help future scholars answer questions about life and death? a vastly dry practical joke), but his corpse remains there today, on display for visitors, and nothing much has befallen it other than the occasional undergraduate prank or curatorial witticism. (The story that it is brought out for trustees’ meetings, with "Jeremy Bentham, present but not voting" recorded in the minutes is apparently, regrettably, false.) Similarly, James and Phoebe Rush are buried in a crypt beneath the Ridgway Library in Philadelphia. James Rush was a noted nineteenth century book collector; more importantly, perhaps, his wife, née Phoebe Anne Ridgway, was an heiress to the same Ridgway fortune that endowed the library. Brown University’s Annmary Brown Memorial Library is the home of both the Mazansky Swords Collection and the crypt in Annmary Brown Hawkins and her husband, Gen. Rush Hawkins, are buried. And the Folgers, of Shakespeare Library fame, chose to have their ashes buried in the reading room of the museum, theater, and research institution they founded. In 1999, the National Central Library in Florence discovered that they had an envelope possibly containing Dante’s ashes, although they may simply be ashes from Dante’s viewing. (You could look it up.) Educational institutions and libraries seem to be good about dealing with mortal remains; those planning on being interred where they can serve as a pedagogical tool might be well advised to cultivate a relationship with their local research institutions.
Individual scholars and authors have a much more mixed track record. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the polymath surgeon who wrote well-received biographies of John Donne and William Harvey and was head of the British National Portrait Gallery, simply failed to follow his brother’s instructions. John Maynard Keynes‘ ashes were thus scattered near Tilton (John Maynard Keynes had been given the title of Baron of Tilton four years before his death) rather than in the crypt at King’s College, Cambridge, as he had requested. When his wife, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova died, her request to be interred with Keynes could not be followed, and her ashes were also scattered over the downs. And when Dorothy Parker died at 73, Lillian Hellman was the executrix. Hellman put on a showy funeral, against Parker’s stated wishes, and then simply failed to do anything with Parker’s ashes. They rested in a filing cabinet at Parker’s lawyer’s office for 15 years. Parker, an admirer of Martin Luther King, had left her literary estate to King; a year after her death, King was assassinated; his will left everything to the NAACP. The NAACP discovered that she hadn’t been buried and, after a protracted legal battle with Hellman, assumed control of the remains and the estate, then built a memorial garden for Parker at their headquarters in Baltimore. The memorial plaque reads, in part, what Parker had written for a humor magazine in which celebrities (including W.C. Fields) chose their own epitaphs: "Excuse my dust."