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Ilustration of winged heart and anchor floating over seashore with cliff

On the Practice of Burying the Heart Separately


The list of tiny heart crypts is a fascinating cultural history that tells us how the brain came to displace the heart.

It is not all too clear where the emergence of the idea that the heart is the seat of emotions, the place from which love flows and where amorous pain arrives, came from. In Ancient Egypt, however, there were already expressions which incorporated the word ib (“heart”) for “happiness” i.e. Awt-ib (literally “greatness of heart”), or Xak-ib as “separate” (literally “of an interrupted heart”).

Many classic philosophers and scientists, including Aristotle, considered the heart as the throne of thought, reason and emotion. It makes sense to think that, if the chest is the part of the body that is first moved; if pain is a thoracic oppression and joy a swelling of the chest, the heart is the organ of emotions. Both breath and heartbeat are contingent processes in the vulnerability of existing.

Product of this unspoken universal agreement, nowadays we send our loved ones heart symbols (which are an unconscious reproduction of the baroque iconography of Cupid’s arrows). But European Royalty once sent their actual hearts to their beloveds. Heart-burials reached their peak in 12th and 13th century fashions.

The custom of burying a person’s heart derived, partly, from the practicality of burials inside churches. To bodies were embalmed to keep them from smelling, and the embalming entailed evisceration. The heart was removed from the body, but so were the intestines and other internal organs. This tendency, however, coincided with the military campaigns of the Middle Ages, like the Crusades, where people would often die far from home and, instead of sending their entire body back, they would send the heart, preserved in lead or ivory boxes, often marinated in spices to minimize the stench.

Kings and poets enjoyed this romantic burial the most. The heart of Richard I of England –who was dubbed  “Lionheart” supposedly from having torn out and eaten the heart of a lion to obtain its courage— was buried in Rouen, France. The heart remained there from 1199 until it was exhumed and analyzed by scientists in 2012. And while they could not learn much about his death, they did find plenty about the process of embalming hearts: in the heart there was incense, spices, vegetables, myrrh, daisies, mint and even some mercury.

The list of tiny heart crypts in the Middle Ages would be a monumental study on its own, but the custom did not end there. If we jump to the 16th century, we find one of the most spine-chilling heart burials of all time. The statue of a decomposing body—which represents René de Chalon, Prince d’Orange— stretches out its right arm to the heavens with his actual heart in hand. Unfortunately, the relic was stolen during the French Revolution ––Nevertheless, the terrifying statue remains; now holding a facsimile of that heart.

As time passed, this custom became increasingly sporadic, but it still made occasional appearances until the 20th century. The idea of keeping a loved one’s heart —that memorable organ, that museum piece—was comparable to having all their virtue incarnate. The heart of the great poet Thomas Hardy, for instance, is buried in the St. Michael Cemetery, in Dorset, while his ashes are kept in Westminster Abbey. According to legend, however, the surgeon that removed the poet’s heart in 1928 kept it in a cookie tin, and his cat found and devoured it. Some say that it is the cat’s heart and not Thomas Hardy’s which is buried in Dorset. But regardless of what is true, the cookie tin that temporarily kept Hardy’s heart now has the image of a cat with a bird in its mouth.

There are many examples as strange as this (like that of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which his wife, Mary Shelley, kept on her desk in a silk parcel until she passed), but perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is seeing how things have changed. In our days, the heart is no longer the symbol of virtue and hope that it was in bygone centuries. Since science discovered that one does not feel with the heart, but with the brain (and therefore with the entire body), the brain is the mythical organ par excellence. And not just because the brain “feels”, but because intelligence has become man’s most powerful virtue.

Einstein and Walt Disney, to mention but two paradigms, left their brain to science as if they were  mystifying machineries that one day will be understood. The epic quality that the heart once had has been replaced today by the brain’s complex electric quality. Indubitably, this brain/heart phenomenon suggests much more than it reveals.

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