SHARE

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.

Throughout Europe, the skeletons of various Christian figures have been removed from Roman catacombs and displayed for veneration. In Germany and Austria, they

Aside from crowns and finery, many skeletons are outfitted with jeweled eyes and other facial features. This one in Munich, Germany, is believed to be St. Munditia, patron saint of spinsters. The cloth prevents the bones from crumbling away.

Other skeletal relics are given lifelike poses inside metal containers, like this armor-clad skeleton of Saint Pancratius, in a Swiss reliquary.

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 bones of rulers (like Konrad II, seen here in Mondsee, Austria) are also housed in reliquaries.

Other mummies, like this one in the Palermo Catacombs in Sicily, are dressed as they would have been in life. Many of the mummies in Sicily are of everyday people and clergy members instead of saints and rulers, so we get to see a more authentic glimpse of the past.

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.

An ossuary at St. Catherine”s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. Some ossuaries simply pile up their bones.

Other places, like the Capuchin Crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, arrange their bones into sculptural features. They also combine the stray bones with full skeletons.

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.

It

This skull in Bangkok, Thailand, is honored as a protector and patron at a foundation that provides free coffins and services for deceased people whose families are not able to afford them.

Sometimes, the living even get in on the preservation of their own bodies. In 1993, shortly before her death, Taiwanese spirit medium Dexiu gave instructions to have her body preserved and gilded. She wanted to continue serving her community even in death.

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, in an area known as Tana Toraja, people bury their family members in naturally formed caves. They believe their deceased loved ones live on in these caves, which serve as family crypts.

In La Paz, Bolivia, people celebrate the dead with the Fiesta de las Natitas (Festival of Skulls), where the skulls of relatives are venerated.

In La Paz, Bolivia, people celebrate the dead with the Fiesta de las Natitas (Festival of Skulls), where the skulls of relatives are venerated.

This festival hearkens back to pre-Columbian times, when people would feast with the bones of their relatives once a year. Today, people only use the skulls. On November 9, they adorn the skulls with flowers and make offerings to them in exchange for a year of protection.

Though the festival is ancient, participants sometimes get a modern touch!

(via Hyperallergic)

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.”

St. Felix in Gars-am-Inn, Germany

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.

NO COMMENTS