The Ultimate Guide to Scattered Body Parts - Atlas Obscura Lists

The Ultimate Guide to Scattered Body Parts

One way or another, these heads, shoulders, hands, and toes have lost their bodies.

Though it might sound macabre, the collection, preservation, and display of bits of human bodies is common across cultures around the world. The practice can be commemorative, in the form of small keepsakes—a lock of hair from a lover, a child’s baby tooth—or impressive trophies—the head of a saint, the heart of a king. It can be used as a form of dominance or humiliation, such as the arm of a thief displayed as a warning to other would-be burglars. Often these partial remains are the result of scientific endeavors, from anatomists and physicians hoping to better understand the human body or the nature of a specific disease.

For many religions, body parts are a big deal. Multiple shrines have been built around teeth said to have come from the Buddha. In Catholicism, the flesh and bones of saints are considered first-class relics, sometimes associated with claims of miraculous healing. The size doesn’t matter: Tiny fragments of bone and entire arms alike are displayed in ornately decorated cases in places of honor. 

Identity is a common question in the world of relics—after all, it’s not as simple as running a DNA test when you’re dealing with an 800-year-old hand. Duplicates are common, especially for well-known figures like St. Valentine or St. Nicholas. And fakes can be difficult to identify, as we see in the ongoing mystery regarding the fate of Rasputin’s severed penis.

Even with these complications, these preserved body parts have a strange allure about them. Regardless of whether they were carefully embalmed and sealed in a golden case or accidentally preserved by the acidic environment of a peat bog, each of these body parts offers a tangible connection to the past. A way to shake hands, if you will, with history.