The 42-year-old donut that will outlast us all
What happens after we die? I don't know. I DO know some stories about a North Carolina mummy, an English philosopher's severed head, a mortician's best line, and a decades-old donut.
I usually try and keep work and the Rabbit Hole separate, but this week I had the extreme pleasure of welcoming Michael Schur to Wake Forest University. Schur, if you don’t know, is a TV writer and producer who had a hand in writing and producing The Office (where he also played Dwight Schrute’s cousin Mose), and co-created Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. He also created The Good Place, an NBC show that somehow managed to be hilarious despite the fact that it’s all about moral philosophy. I work for the Program for Leadership and Character. We. Love. It.
I was lucky enough to introduce Schur on stage Monday night. His ensuing discussion with my colleague Ann Phelps covered television, comedy, philosophy, and the unfortunate afterlife of an Englishman named Jeremy Bentham (which you can hear around 24:40 into the video below).
Oh man, not another weirdo named Jeremy
Note: This portion of the newsletter isn’t overtly North Carolina-y, but it was brought up by Michael Schur in North Carolina, so it counts.
Bentham was the father of utilitarianism, which states that the most ethical choice is the one that creates the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. That view has some obvious downsides, which are maybe best illustrated by a utilitarian approach to philosophy’s most famous theoretical exercise: The Trolley Problem. Let’s say a trolley is barreling down the tracks, about to mow down five people. You can flip the switch, and send the trolley down another track, where it will only kill one person. By flipping the switch, you can save five lives, but then you’ve made the conscious decision to kill one person. There’s a branch of philosophical thought called deontology that says no, taking an action that directly results in the death of an innocent person is wrong, no matter the situation. Utilitarians are like, “Nah, flipping the switch saves five people. Kill that dude, bro.”
Anyhow, Bentham was the O.G. utilitarian, and after his death, he demanded that his body—his auto-icon—be preserved and put on display at the institution he helped found: University College London. Did that university actually do this? Yes. Yes they did.
There’s a picture below and before you get really worried, know that you can’t actually see any of Bentham’s remains in it. Basically, his skeleton is inside of his suit, and the head and hands are made of wax. His actual head was severed and preserved, but it’s pretty gnarly looking and is no longer on permanent display, although it is brought out from time to time.
Bentham thought that if his friends missed him, someone could go get his corpse and wheel it out, Weekend at Bernie’s style, to hang out at a party. Auto-icons, he believed, would be all the rage. Instead, he now sits in a glass box, greets visitors to the University College London’s new student centre, and gives off major Quaker Oats guy vibes.
A Morbid Display
I know what you’re thinking. Jeremy Bentham-style corpse displays: Could they happen here? Well, yes. In 1911, long before Body Worlds was A Thing, a 25-year-old carnival musician named Forenzio Concippio (or something else; there are about five different possible permutations of his name) was murdered in McColl, South Carolina by a co-worker wielding a tent stake. Concippio’s father, also a carnival worker, made a down payment on his son’s funeral in nearby Laurinburg, but couldn’t pay for the rest and never came back. “My daddy embalmed him,” Hewitt McDougald told the News & Observer in 1972, “and his daddy signed a paper saying if he didn’t come back in a reasonable length of time, we could dispose of it as we saw fit.” So what did the funeral director do? Naturally, he hung up Concippio’s mummified remains with a rope and put them on display in the garage of the McDougald Funeral Home in Laurinburg.
For 61 years.
It became a frighteningly morbid tourist attraction. Locals gave the body a nickname, Spaghetti. That nickname has been described by some as affectionate, and by others as an ethnic slur. In 1939, the funeral home reportedly turned down $500 from the Italian government to bury the body. Others wanted to buy the remains, but the by one account, the funeral home thought Concippio’s corpse was good advertising for them, so they said no.
It wasn’t until 1972 when Hewitt McDougald (who insisted he’d broken no laws) was pressured into taking the display down, but still refused to bury Concippio’s body until someone paid the rest of the funeral costs. A few months later, in September, some folks in Scotland County came up with the money and, at long last, Concippio was given a proper burial. His vault was covered in two tons of cement because the undertaker “didn't want anybody out there digging him up.”
The McDougald Funeral Home, which was founded in 1850, is still in operation in the same big, red brick house on the corner of Church and James streets in Laurinburg. In 2016, after four generations, the McDougalds sold it, but it still remains North Carolina’s oldest independent, family-owned funeral home, and was the first in North Carolina to buy a motorized hearse. Neither the old nor the new company websites mention Forenzio Concippio.
If Concippio’s story seems horribly macabre, then please, get up, take a minute, and clear your head. And when, at some point, you are in a lighter mood, let me tell you about another auto-icon on display at a university in North Carolina: A 42-year-old Dunkin’ donut.
Yes, a major North Carolina university has preserved a damn donut for 42 years
In November 1980, someone brought a box of donuts to a library staff meeting at UNC-Greensboro, and all but one got eaten. Nobody threw it out. A few days later, some employees were trying to tune in the university radio station on an old stereo, but weren’t having much luck. Someone grabbed the donut, hung it from a binder clip near the antenna. The station came in, clear as a bell.
The donut hung there FOR FIVE YEARS.
In 1985, a student accidentally knocked it down, and it “clincked to the floor like a piece of stoneware.” By this time, it had shrunk down to a tenth of its original size. Also by this time, it had spawned The First Annual Doughnut Festival. From the Spartan Stories blog:
Celebrants were encouraged to adapt song titles, movie title, opening lines of books, and compose poetry to exalt what was becoming a workplace icon. Notable entries in the song category included “Don’t Come Home Drinkin’ with Doughnuts on Your Mind” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Doughnut.”
For the 10th anniversary, someone placed it in a velvet-lined case. For the 20th, The Associated Press, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and NPR ran stories about the donut. For the 30th, UNCG made new professional display for it. And for the 40th, I wrote about it.
I mean, that’s really it. What else can you say? In 1980, no one had the guts to eat one last donut, and it’s just stayed down there in the basement of Jackson Library for four damn decades. There’s a fine line between laziness and perseverence. Or preservatives, maybe.
The mortician with the sickest burn
Rather than try to tie this whole newsletter together with a tidy turn of phrase, let me just drop in what, maybe, is the best quote I’ve ever been lucky enough to get. In 2014, I went to the tiny town of Gulf, in central North Carolina, to talk to Russell Palmer for Our State magazine. As a boy, he was friends with Charles E. Daniels, who’d moved around the South with his family but eventually ended up in Gulf in the 1950s. One day, Russell got out an old guitar and taught Charles a few chords.
Charles E. Daniels eventually became Charlie Daniels. Russell is the one who first taught him to play guitar.
Charlie eventually went on play “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Russell became a funeral director. But years later, Charlie paid Russell back by inviting him up on stage at the Grand Ole Opry to play with his band.
Russell is a humble guy, except when you tell him that he can’t do something. In that instance, according to his wife, he always has the same response: “You can’t embalm a body, and you’ve never played the Grand Ole Opry.”