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Rembrandt, Franklin, Freud, Lovelace And Ford: 11 Things You Didn't Know From The 'Book Of The Dead' (PHOTOS)

Posted: 09/28/10 08:30 AM ET

Two things strike you when you spend time among the dead. The first is just how many of them there are (about 90 billion humans have lived and died over the past 100,000 years). The second is how similar were the challenges they each faced -- and how staggeringly varied and resourceful the responses. The more lives we collected for "The Book of the Dead," the more we started to notice patterns forming. The result was a wall covered in lists of people organized by category. But instead of the usual biographical divisions -- politicians, musicians, artists, etc. -- we decided to choose groupings that focused on how all of us (not just those who feature in school textbooks) live our lives: our relationships to our parents, our illnesses, attitudes to work, culinary and sexual appetites, and our sense (if any) of what it all means.

So, here's our eclectic selection of some of the most successful, happiest, saddest and maddest men and women in history. Many are world famous, others almost completely forgotten: the only criteria for inclusion were that they be both dead -- and interesting.

We hope their struggles will inspire you, or at the very least offer you some comfort from knowing your life is nowhere near as bad as it could be.

Follow the authors on Twitter.

MARY KINGSLEY (1862 - 1900)
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In 1893, a young unmarried Englishwoman called Mary Kingsley set off for West Africa with one suitcase, a large bowie knife and a revolver. She dressed as she had in London – in a high-collared, floor-length black silk dress with a little hat – and would arrive in remote jungle villages with a cheery ‘It’s only me!’ Unflappable, she fought off crocodiles and leopards; befriended cannibals; ate python; and was one of the first Europeans to see a gorilla. She proved an outstanding field scientist, collecting specimens for the British Museum. Of the sixty-five species of fish she returned with, seven were new to science and three of have since been named after her. Her passion for her subject produced one of the great travel classics, Travels in West Africa (1897) and a one-woman show that attracted audiences in their thousands. She died from typhoid, aged 37, while working as a nurse during the Boer War.

Mary’s close study of the Fang people of Gabon had led her to respect a way of life she found preferable, in many ways, to the ‘second-hand rubbishy white culture’ of the colonial administrators and missionaries. She had learnt, she said, to ‘think in black’, enabling her to look on the bright side of cultural practices such as polygamy, even cannibalism. Once, when staying in a Fang hut, a ‘violent smell’ alerted her to a bag suspended from the roof. Emptying the contents into her hat, she found ‘a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears and other portions of the human frame.’

[Image by Adrian Teal]
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