Magazine article The Spectator

The Cult of Corpses

Magazine article The Spectator

The Cult of Corpses

Article excerpt

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses

by Paul Koudounaris

Thames & Hudson, £29.95, pp. 224,

ISBN 9780500251782

In one Capuchin monastery in Sicily, the socalled Palermo Catacombs, locals used to buy a niche where their mummified corpse would one day stand erect, clothed and on display to visitors, the way we might now buy a burial plot. Would-be purchasers would pay a visit to select their niche and stand in it to make sure it fitted. Indeed, by way of voluntary penance, some would remain there for hours, contemplating their end.

At the same time, in the early 17th century, a related order of nuns in Rome, the Sepolta Vive or Buried Alive sisters, would sleep in coffins and hail each other with the observation: 'Remember sister, we all have to die'. As a prelude to a complaint about domestic problems - the dinner or the drains - this would, one feels, put things in perspective.

These are just a couple of vignettes from a fascinating book, The Empire of Death, by Paul Koudounaris, subtitled 'A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses'.

Illustrated with the most fabulous skeletons you have ever seen, it is intended to bring home to us the extent to which our view of dead bodies differs from those of our forebears. And it does.

We like our deceased to look similar to their living selves when we look at them at all; most people rarely see a corpse and are increasingly likely to have it hygienically burned rather than buried, let alone put on display. Yet in parts of Catholic Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries, people would not only pay artists to paint their relations' skulls with floral wreaths but would take their children to visit them as an introduction to the family tree.

Ossuaries, often arranged with the utmost artistry, are scattered throughout Europe and South America, but the rationale behind the display varies over time. …

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