October is possibly my favorite month – the start of Autumn, colorful leaves falling to the ground, brisk air, and of course, Halloween! I love going into stores and looking at all of the decorations. This year I decided to make October count. I was going watch and read a bunch of horror and gothic novels like Jane Eyre and House of Leaves. October was going to be my “spooky” month. I even made a shelf on Goodreads.
I succeeded in binge-watching horror movies, but my reading plan utterly failed. I fell into a major reading slump and as a result barely read anything.
BUT all was not lost. I managed to read one very cool book about death that month and that book was Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudounaris. I’d been interested in this book ever since I read Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a memoir of her experience working in the death industry and her thoughts on Western society’s attitude towards death.
Paul Koudounaris is an art historian and specializes in charnel houses and ossuaries, meaning that he goes around taking photos (very nice photos) of skulls (some very fancy skulls) and elaborately constructed arches made of human remains. Of course it’s a lot more than that. In Memento Mori, Koudounaris describes different practices of caring for and respecting the dead, some of which are very foreign to me. In some cultures, family members’ skulls are kept, decorated, and displayed in the house. There are days dedicated to celebrating that dead, and and everyone will gather with their decorated, deceased family members. In an extreme example, in one culture (I can’t remember which), dead family members are “kept alive:” they are dressed up, stay in the family house, and even sleep in the same bed as the living.
As an American, it is shocking to read this, but it does make me question our practices and think about Caitlin Doughty’s grievances with the American attitude towards death. Why are we so repulsed by human remains? Why must we literally and figuratively bury our dead? Perhaps if we adopted practices from other cultures, we might change our attitudes and treat death as a part of life instead of as an end to life.
The actual book is beautiful; it is wonderfully bound and has high quality printed pages. And the photos simply stunning. The ossuaries and charnel houses are awe-inducing and underscore how death can be beautiful. I’ve included a slideshow of a few photos I found on the internet. These pictures don’t Koudounaris’s photos justice though! You must see them in print for yourselves! Koudounaris has done an amazing job, and I very much look forward to reading and viewing more of his work.
I would like to thank my pun-obsessed friend Anna for the title of this post.