Antigone fans
December 4, 2007 3:19 PM   Subscribe

When was the last government corpse desecration in Western Civilization?

The last instance of a corpse desecration I can conjure up from my average history education is they had Cromwell's head up on a pike at Westminster Abbey at the end of the 17th century. If the state of Kentucky left a hanged body hanging for a couple days as an exclamation point to how contemptible the condemned was, that counts, but a lynch mob doing the same does not. If a French Army commander in Algeria desecrated a corpse and filed his report up the chain of command like it's normal, I think that counts too, although there it's a little weirder since terrorizing the populace was part of his job description.

Thank you!
posted by bukvich to Law & Government (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Mussolini? At least that's the first I thought of when I read this.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 3:28 PM on December 4, 2007

The botched hanging (and subsequent display) in Iraq? (Depends on what you mean by "western" and whom you say was really in charge.)

Some tribes assert that the continued study and display of Native American human remains is desecration; certainly, museums have had to return quite a number of remains.
posted by Forktine at 3:31 PM on December 4, 2007

hmmm, but maybe partisans don't count as government...
posted by lucia__is__dada at 3:34 PM on December 4, 2007

Che was executed by Bolivia then the corpse was shot several times on CIA orders to make it look like combat injuries. After that he was strapped to the bottom of a helicopter and flown to Vallegrande, where he was displayed to the press. After that his hands were cut off as trophies and his corpse disappeared - the Bolivian gov't refused to disclose if he had been buried or cremated.

It was recovered in... 97?... and returned to Cuba. Sans hands.
posted by unixrat at 3:37 PM on December 4, 2007


(not safe for pride in being an American)
posted by Flunkie at 3:39 PM on December 4, 2007

I'm pretty sure that "governments" or their official agents do this, somewhere, nearly every single day. Things may be a little more sedate in the West, but that depends a lot on what one defines the West to be.

I learned (just this summer) of the sad fate of a girl I'd met once, a 20 year-old Bosnian Muslim, who was taken from her family by Serb armed forces. She died from "body trauma," the result of being gang-raped for a period of several weeks. When the troops left the town, she was left on the road, dead, naked, blood-covered and almost unrecognizable, next to a sign which read "Muslim Whore - Use As You Wish." This is but one of many similar stories, part and parcel of a form of terrorism sponsored and encouraged by a "Western" government (ironically, against Muslims, though it's rarely framed that way. Pre-9/11, too. And actively denied by the more "overtly" Western nations until far too many had died and it had become a real scandal and international embarrassment.)

I'd also mention Victor Jara, only because it's a famous case. He was a brilliant songwriter in the "Nueva CanciĆ³n" movement, a kind of back-to-basics folk revival in Latin America. He supported Salvador Allende, who won a popular election in Chile. But the US didn't like Allende, and they backed the anti-Allende military, who staged a coup and ultimately marched Jara and other supporters to the Chile Stadium, where they were tortured and many were killed. Jara was singled out for "special" treatment, because of his fame and symbolic power. He was tortured, with most of his ribs broken. Special effort was made to break all the bands in his hands and mutilate them, so he would (had he lived) never been able to play guitar again. He was later machine-gunned and dumped onto a public road as a "warning." I believe this was in 1973.

We can thank Kissinger for this one, based on a paper trail made increasingly public. Allende's fall and subsequent mysterious death led to the regime of Augusto Pinochet, whose attempts to avoid prosecution for his reign of terror and nastiness are more recent news.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:07 PM on December 4, 2007

NSFPIBAA: Not certain that a thumbs up would count as corpse desecration as defined in the original post. ("Head on a pike" type desecration)

It is not a flattering perspective of the young lady, but I don't think this is a desecration.

A lack of respect, no question. Lack of discretion? No question.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 4:08 PM on December 4, 2007

Saddam Hussein
posted by pompomtom at 4:20 PM on December 4, 2007

"to treat disrespectfully, irreverently, or outrageously"

And it should be viewed in the larger context of events in that prison, anyway.
posted by Flunkie at 4:31 PM on December 4, 2007

Hussein, definitely. His half-brother also got his head ripped off in the hanging.

Some might try to claim that this was the Iraqi government, but let's be realistic: it's a puppet government, and it does whatever the US tells it to. It'll be a real government when it can prosecute US mercenary forces and US troops.
posted by mullingitover at 4:33 PM on December 4, 2007

Some of you are missing the point of what bukvich is asking... the desecration of a corpse by a government or an agent of the government, in a way that is not hidden from society.

I believe the exact term you're looking for is a posthumuous execution, but including the previously mentioned conditions. I'm having a hard time finding one more recent than Cromwell, although Rasputin is interestingly close. Che seems to be the best answer I've seen so far.
posted by furtive at 5:09 PM on December 4, 2007

Botching an execution is not the same as desecrating a corpse. Shockingly, people are letting their politics get the better of them here.
posted by Dasein at 6:45 PM on December 4, 2007

According the reports I've seen Hussein was mutilated post-mortem. Counts as desecration to me.
posted by pompomtom at 7:11 PM on December 4, 2007

Massacres during the French revolution, which were at least tolerated by the de-facto powers that were ruling France at the time.

Stalin apparently kept a piece of Hitler's skull.
posted by stereo at 1:09 AM on December 5, 2007

As the Cold War came to a close in December 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the communist dictator of Romania and his wife, were overthrown by pro-democracy protesters, given a quick military trial, and executed. Their firing squad used AK-47's, which edges the event into mutilation, rather than just execution -- especially because the trial, the execution, and the post-execution handling of the bodies were all purposely filmed and broadcast on both Romanian and international TV, so you could argue that this was a public event carried out by a government, though the people conducting the actions were not yet the official Romanian government, technically.

The video footage is available on YouTube in three parts.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:51 AM on December 5, 2007

Best answer: Gibbeting (the public display of the corpses of executed criminals) continued in England until the nineteenth century. The last men to be gibbeted in England were William Jobling and James Cook, in 1832. The last man to be publicly hanged in England was Michael Barrett, in 1868. After 1868, executions took place behind prison walls, out of sight of the public.

Vic Gatrell argues in The Hanging Tree that this reflects a sea-change in attitudes to crime -- he calls it a 'revolution in sensibility'. Up until the nineteenth century, it was assumed that public hanging and gibbeting would have a beneficial effect in demonstrating the consequences of criminal behaviour, thus deterring people from crime. But in the nineteenth century, people increasingly found it a disgusting spectacle and felt it would have a damaging effect in brutalising and hardening the spectators, thus making them more likely to commit crime.

John Stuart Mill remarked in 1836 that 'the spectacle, and even the very idea, of pain is kept more and more out of sight of those classes who enjoy in their fullness the benefits of civilization'. Whether you regard this (with Mill) as a mark of civilization, or (with Gatrell) as a mark of squeamishness, depends on your point of view.
posted by verstegan at 8:13 AM on December 6, 2007

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