As much as we might not like to think about it, death is a part of life. It”s the final act of being human. Everyone dies at some point, and the living are left to deal with it. Those left behind are tasked with everything from the practical issue of what to do with the remains, to the emotional and philosophical challenges of accepting mortality in the face of loss.
In his book Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, photographer Paul Koudounaris gives us a look at how people deal with the dead around the world, and how instead of shying away from it, many cultures put human remains on display, using them as objects of worship, memorial, and celebration.
Throughout Europe, the skeletons of various Christian figures have been removed from Roman catacombs and displayed for veneration. In Germany and Austria, they”re often covered in gold and jewels.
In reality, these skeletons are probably not the actual saints” bodies. They were pulled out of Roman catacombs, which are typically mass graves, and assigned the identities of saints. Who they really were remains a mystery to this day.
The skeletons in these reliquaries certainly give churches an interesting focal point, often attracting the curious. Koudounaris once met a church member who said that an unexpected benefit of these bony residents is that it gives the churches some cool-points with the local heavy metal kids.
Besides mummies, many religious and memorial sites in the West also have ossuaries, which are huge collections of human bones (usually skulls and other large bones). These fixtures serve as mass graves. In churches and monasteries, they”re usually the bones of the clergy, but ossuaries can also be used to store the bones of the general populace, or as memorials to battles and massacres.
Many ossuaries feature ominous reminders to the living written over the collections of bones as though the pile of bones wasn”t reminder enough that all who are living now will die, and that the dead were once living.
It sounds grim, but many people use it as a reminder to live productive lives and take advantage of the time they have.
It”s not just Europe that venerates remains of the dead. All over the world, human remains and bones are used as artifacts to remember the dead, and to come to terms with mortality.
In La Paz, Bolivia, people celebrate the dead with the Fiesta de las Natitas (Festival of Skulls), where the skulls of relatives are venerated.
These practices might seem morbid to people of certain cultures, but this discomfort with death is not a universal feeling. In many places, honoring the dead even by looking right into the hollow eyes of a skull is an act of love and remembrance.
Koudounaris even met a man in Indonesia who, along with his brothers, kept the mummified body of his grandfather in the house. When asked why, his answer was simple: “Because we loved him.”
You can see more of Koudounaris”s fascinating photographs on his website and in his book, which also covers memorial sites that use human remains in places like Cambodia and Rwanda. You can learn more about the jeweled skeletons in his previous book, Heavenly Bodies, and keep up with his latest travels on Facebook.