Autodidact: self-taught

Nov
24
2012

Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven


The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris

–Introduction–
001 p11 We tend to think of death as representing an unequivocal, non-negotiable and irreducible status, its definition and interpretation are matters of context. In the modern Western world, we have come to consider death as a boundary. In many other cultures it is not—it is conceived simply as a tradition, and a dialogue between the living and the dead forms a meaningful part of social discourse.
002 p11 The most dramatic contemporary example is undoubtedly the Famidihana (Turning of the Bones) of the Malagasy people of Madagascar. This ritual involves removing the body of an ancestor from its crypt, wrapping it in a new shroud, and dancing with the corpse to live music. There may even be a family meal at which the deceased is given a place at the table. The ritual serves to unite families by reestablishing their bonds with ancestors, and introducing younger members to family history.
003 p11 Although the Famidihana is not a Christian ritual, Christianity itself does not preclude a dialogue with the dead., and similar practices survive in some pockets of the modern Christian world. On November 2 in Pomuch, Mexico, family members return to the local cemetery to remove the bones of their relatives from their tombs and clean them. In this ritual, the Dia de los Muertos manages to rise above its modern-day kitsch and become a real and intimate interaction between the living and their departed ancestors.
004 p11 Elsewhere in Latin America, the Fiesta de las Natitas on November 8 in La Paz, Bolivia, brings in thousands of people carrying human skulls to the city’s Cemetery General. The skull, of natitas (little pug-nosed ones), reside in the homes of the living so that the souls of the deceased can act as guardians and helpers. The Fiesta is an opportunity to thank and honour the dead.
005 p12 The Fontanelle Cemetery, a large ossuary created in the cave system in Naples during the seventeenth century, is one of the sites where the interaction between the [living and the dead] was at its most pronounced. For over 200 years, the living would come to solicit air from the remains of the deceased, asking for advice on various domestic and personal problems, and expressing gratitude by providing the dead with shrines, prayers and various forms of offerings.
006 p13 In Western Culture, the line separating the living and the dead underwent a fundamental shift during the Enlightenment. The triumph of modern concepts of individualism and the exaltation of private ownership over older concepts of corporateness and community further changed our attitudes toward death. As Baudrillard explained, we have undergone an evolution in which, ‘little by little, the dead cease to exist.’
007 p13 The living would visit mummified or skeletal remains and lovingly robe them, as a means of perpetuating their relationship with their ancestors and loved ones. By contrast, Baudrillard accused contemporary society of being ‘incapable of confronting death without wan humour or perverse fascination.’

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008 p14 The German sociologist Norbert Elias, studying the evolution of social standards in The Civilizing Process, described the modern individual as homo clausus (closed man), ‘a little world in himself who ultimately exists quite independently of the outside world,’ maintaining a self-image in which the ‘real’ person is closed off to everything that is exterior. Both Julia Kristeva, in her work on abjection, and Claudia Benthien, in her study of the cultural history of skin, have likewise argued that the epidermis has come to define our modern concept of individual boundary, and its dissolution implies the loss of individuality. Prior to this conceptual shift, death and decomposition were among the ‘acts of the bodily drama’ that were once played out on a more public stage. Despite being natural and universal processes, they are now hidden from view, and glimpsing them is considered invasive, repulsive or crass. To modern eyes, then, the display of bones in a charnel is not only a violation of the bodily canon, it undermines our fundamental concept of individuality.
Baudrillard believed that as death became increasingly abject, it began to signify …and social signs. [finish this quote]
009 p15 Considering the great ossuaries naturally [???] the question of how to interpret their often ostentatious displays. The most typical answer is that they are memento mori (reminders of death), and are intended to impress on the visitor the fact that he, too, will die.
010 p16 The emblem of the skull and crossbones, for example, symbolized not just mortality but also the promise of resurrection.
011 p16 On the walls of Santa Maria della Concezione, for instance, one finds motifs of clocks and hourglasses delicately traced in small bones. These symbols remind the viewer that the passage of time inevitably brings an end, but that it also brings a new beginning, as a popular maxim of the period inscribed on the wall of the crypt states: Che la morte chiude le porte del tempo e apre quelle dell’eternita (Death closes the gates of time, and opens those of eternity.)
012 p16 The authors [of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction] expressed a concern over the sequestration of the dead in the modern world. They cited psychological studies that showed that people who do not have contact with mortality tend to feel ‘depressed, diminished, and less alive,’ and urged that people be allowed to experience and interact with death in order to bring them closer not just to mortality, but also to vivacity. They suggested that memorials and other reminders of the deceased be incorporated in living environments, and that community planners make signs of people’s transitions through life visible, especially those relating to death. ‘No people who turn their back on death can be alive,’ they explained. ‘The presence of the death among the living will be a daily fact in any society that encourages its people to live.’ This is precisely how the great ossuaries once functioned. As we open the doors to their vaults, we may react with varying degrees of morbid fascination, confusion, and reverence for their often incredible beauty. Ultimately,however, the corridors filled with the accumulated bones of generations past provide us with an opportunity to affirm life by embracing death.

–Early Charnel Houses–
013 p18 Skulls were found interred under houses in Neolithic Jericho (c.7000-5000 B.C.E.), coated in layers of plaster or bitumen, with facial details added in paint; in a Mesolithic burial site in Ofnet, Germany (c. 7000-7000 B.C.E.), specimens covered in red ocher and adorned with various ornaments have been discovered. If these decorative processes were intended to preserve the identity of the deceased and to honor the memory of a departed loved one, they were essentially identical in purpose to the inscriptions on crania in the charnel house at St Michael’s Chapel in Hallstatt, Austria, or to the skull boxes at the medieval Saint-Hilaire Cemetery in Marville, France, despite a gap of 7,000 or more years.

Fontanelle Cemetery
Santa Maria della Concezione
Catacombs under monastery of santa maria della pace in palermo
St Michaels Chapel Hallstatt

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