Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Death at Life: An Exploration of Our Relationship with the Deceased

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Death at Life: An Exploration of Our Relationship with the Deceased

Article excerpt

Byline: David Whetstone Culture Editor

ATALK about death is to take place at Life tomorrow, and it promises to be more flamboyant than you might imagine. Coinciding with the Body Worlds Vital exhibition at the Centre for Life, it is to be delivered by Dr Paul Koudounaris, who was flying in from California for the occasion.

Dr Koudounaris is the author of two books about the visual culture of death and mortality.

The first, Empire of Death, is a cultural history of ossuaries and charnel houses (places where bones were stored). The follow-up, Heavenly Bodies, documents "cult treasures and spectacular saints from the catacombs" and is full of fabulously bejewelled skeletons looking, as skeletons generally do, extremely pleased with themselves.

On the phone from Los Angeles, Dr Koudounaris says: "Our relationship with the dead has changed drastically since the start of the 20th century."

Nobody - except, perhaps, Damien Hirst - would consider sharing living space these days with a gemencrusted skeleton. But the fascination is there, as evidenced by the Life exhibition, featuring the bodies preserved by Dr Gunther von Hagens through his "plastination" process.

Dr Koudounaris says he considers von Hagens to be "a great artist" with "an incredible technique". But he points out that, whereas the German's concerns are secular, his field of research is largely religious.

He fell into it, he says, "by total accident, like so many things". He had just finished a PhD in art history and was travelling in Eastern Europe and wondering what to do next.

"I was in this town one day and wandered into this outstanding charnel house under a church. I was familiar with the famous stuff, like the Paris catacombs, but this was an absolutely amazing site and even people in the town didn't seem to know it was there. …

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