Religions have long venerated the remnants of revered figures. But, as Kelly Grovier explains, there are intriguing secular relics too – from Einstein’s eyes to Napoleon’s penis.

Whatever your belief in the afterlife might be, it probably doesn’t feature having parts of your dead body auctioned off on eBay. A recent complaint filed with the online auction website, after one of its customers stumbled across a listing for a fragment of bone said to be from a Catholic saint, raises intriguing questions about the sanctity of our physical remains after we die.

The macabre trafficking in the material remnants of revered figures is, of course, nothing new. For centuries, pilgrimages have been made by the devout in order to touch, behold, or pray beside relics from the bodies of prophets and martyrs. To this day, Buddha’s tooth (allegedly kept in a temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka), Mohammed’s beard (believed to be housed in a palace in Istanbul), and the Holy Umbilical Cord of Christ (said to be preserved in the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome) are venerated by worshippers.

But what about the rest of us? What will happen to the bits and pieces that physically comprise you, decades and centuries after you have shuffled off this mortal coil? The vast majority of us, no doubt, will stay put and remain as skeletally intact under our tombstones as worms will allow. But not everyone. There’s a restless history of the world waiting to be told, that features the fidgety vestiges of individuals whose eyeballs and fingers, brains and hearts have refused to stay still. Here are five of the most notable anatomical secular relics.

Galileo’s finger

In June 2010, Italy witnessed one of the more peculiar reunions in cultural history. It was then that the pioneering Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei’s thumb and middle finger, recently acquired at auction by Florence’s Museum of the History of Science, were re-acquainted with the scientist’s tooth and another one of his digits, already on display in the museum. Snapped off when Galileo’s corpse was transferred from one tomb to another in 1737, the fingers (along with one of his teeth and a vertebra) were pilfered by devotees desperate for a talisman of his genius. Exhibited now alongside a pair of telescopes the astronomer invented, the fingers invest an otherwise passive display with a morbid palpability, inviting modern-day pilgrims to this pseudo-shrine to contemplate a mind that grasped the skies like no one before him.

Napoleon’s penis

While some secular relics reside in public museums, others are kept private. Take Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis. In 1821, an English surgeon allegedly did. The recently deceased body of the French commander was autopsied on the Atlantic island of St Helena, where he’d been banished six years’ earlier by the British after the French defeat at Waterloo. For years the British had struggled to get the measure of the savvy military genius, but it was only after the general’s genitalia were said to have been removed from his body that they got the chance. Regularly satirised by British caricaturists, Napoleon was cut down to size and forced in death to live up to the choppy nickname by which he’d long been lampooned: “Bone-a-part”.

Since its reported severance, Napoleon’s penis has been handed down like a strange cultural baton from generation to generation – from an Italian priest in the 19th Century, to a London bookseller in the 20th, to the private collection of an American urologist, who paid $2,900 for it in 1969 and kept the stretch of shrivelled flesh under his bed in a suitcase until his death in 2007. In June 2016, the urologist’s vast collection of historical curiosities, including the cyanide ampoule that Hermann Göring used to kill himself, was auctioned off and sold to an Argentine collector. What is said to be Napoleon’s penis could have been among the haul.

Einstein’s eyes

Napoleon’s little commander isn’t the only celebrity relic hidden away from public view. After decades of squinting at the universe and staring down the stars, Albert Einstein’s eyes were separated from his corpse after the physicist’s death in 1955. They are now believed to be fathoming the dimensions of a rather duller black hole: a safe deposit box in New York City.

When the celebrated scientist’s brain was removed for intensive investigation (a process that would extend over decades), his pickled eyes were handed over, as an intimate keepsake, to Henry Abrams, Einstein’s long-serving ophthamologist. Abrams own life ended in 2009, when the eye doctor was 97. It is thought that Einstein’s eyes, which have yet to be listed as a lot at auction, are still floating in darkness alone.

Thomas Edison’s ‘last breath’

The existential desire to preserve the unpreservable is on poignant display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. There, in a cork-stoppered test tube, angled on a slender stand like a pop star’s microphone, is a clear glass phial that purports to contain the last breath of the legendary American inventor Thomas Edison. When the famous creator of the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the light bulb died in a bedroom in New Jersey in 1931, an open ampoule beside him, into which his final exhalation fell, was sealed by his doctor. Edison’s son Charles, perhaps believing (as the Greeks did) that one’s breath (or pneuma) carried with it one’s soul, later gave the test tube for safe keeping to his father’s business partner, the automobile magnate Ford.

Pancho Villa’s trigger finger

Unsurprisingly, cultural obsession with the material remnants of celebrated figures encourages fraud and the peddling of phony fragments. In 2011, one such problematic relic scratched its way to public attention in El Paso, Texas. It was then that Dave’s Pawn Shop advertised a dubious digit purporting to be the trigger finger of the Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa. In life, Villa was notoriously difficult to pin down. In death, his body has remained equally elusive. Indeed any number of people claim to be in possession of the folk hero’s bullet-riddled skull, which was severed from his exhumed corpse by grave robbers in 1926, three years after his car was ambushed and he was shot dead by a group of riflemen.

Describing the finger as “shriveled and curved slightly”, one local reporter ghoulishly characterised the object on sale at Dave’s Pawn Shop as riven by “an eerily jagged gash – as if it dug its way out of the grave”. Offering no guarantees of the finger’s authenticity, the proprietor merely attached to the object the same back story it came with when the shop acquired it seven years earlier. Five years on, and Dave’s is still itching to sell the finger, which continues to feature on its Facebook page alongside the promise “you will never find a pawn shop quite like this one.”

What motivates someone to possess a material memento from the physical existence of another is ultimately mysterious. Perhaps such fragments are seen as conduits through which surges of life can pass. Or perhaps they’re clung to as grim totems that can ward off death’s finality. "Having his eyes”, Einstein’s eye doctor confessed to a reporter in 1994, “means the professor's life has not ended. A part of him is still with me.”

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