Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us
Another revealing and tradition challenging book by Paul Koudounaris the emperor of the Empire of Death website, the world authority on the veneration of human remains throughout history, and photographer of decorated skeletal remains. In this large format book the author introduces us to numerous contemporary societies across the planet that use human remains (mummified or skeletonized) as a conduit to the contemplation of mortality, protection, and the granting of prayers. In societies such as some small enclaves in Indonesia, death is merely a transition to another state and the person who dies does not leave, but relates to the living in a different way, similar to the veneration and prayers to deceased relatives in China and other Asian countries. But in these Indonesian villages sometimes the remains are mummified and stay at the home, dressed for various daily activities. Other situations call for the mummified remains to be visited every year at a catacomb or cave tomb and redressed and spoken to. The book contains many other examples of communities that maintain a relationship with the dead, using the remains (many times the skull) as an object in the relationship.
The book is filled with high quality photographs of ossuaries, catacombs, mummified remains, reformation era “saints”, and skulls, lots of skulls. The text discusses how our western view of death has changed in the last 200-300 years. How it has gone from one where people were comfortable with death, had a relationship with death from an early age, and in many cases looked forward to the transition; to one where death has become an enemy to be feared and avoided at all costs. The descriptions accompanied by the photos provide perspective on the contemporary western views on death and treatment (hiding) of remains via the contrast with the remaining societies and examples of forced death remembrance with prominently displayed remains. Sometimes the ossuaries are used to venerate victims of genocide (like in Rwanda) and remind the living of what can happen when hatred is allowed to come to power. In other situations the ossuaries are still used by a few to contemplate their own mortality.
This book has a nice mix of history and lessons on how our views of something so very universal are driven by our society. Unless we are willing to look outside of our everyday world and experience a different view of something we all must face at some point in our lives, we will remain stuck in our contentious relationship with the only thing guaranteed to us from the moment of our birth.