Let The Dead Speak - Paul Koudounaris

Published: 27 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 211, May, 2012

Enter if you will into this peculiar homage Paul Koudounaris gives to the Grim Reaper with his erudite and amazingly illustrated book, The Empire of Death…

Essentially, The Empire of Death is the culmination of what happened when American, Paul Koudounaris, dedicated five years of his life to researching the spread of the ‘Memento mori’ culture that reverberated through the centuries and beat in the heart of the Catholic faith. Ossuaries and charnel houses across Europe were conscientiously photographed, documented, and put in context.

“I was wandering around in Central and Eastern Europe without any particular objective,” Paul explains. “I was aware of some of the more famous ossuaries, but one day I wandered by accident into the Kostnice (Czech for charnel house) in Melnik, Czech Republic. It was in some ways a revelation for me, because not only was it complex in construction, but there was a very erudite iconography – but moreso, it was a fascinating place because even though it holds its own with the more famous ones, no one seemed to know about it. Even locally, no one seems to know about it, it had pretty much been completely forgotten about.

“Anyway, after that I began wondering how many similar places might be around, hidden in villages or underneath city streets, with the people above completely oblivious to the stacks of bones which contain their own ancestors. So I started doing some research and was shocked by how many I found. I realized I had found a topic that had once been an important, even vital, part of religious culture, but had since been overlooked – as I would eventually realize, overlooked because our own relationship with death has changed so much over the past few centuries. In the end it took about five years for this project to come to a conclusion. I photographed on four continents, Europe (obviously), South America, Asia (the memorial stupa at the Killing Fields are in the book), and Africa (Egypt – St. Catherine’s in Sinai).”

What exactly is a Memento mori?

"A Memento mori is a reminder of death; it just reminds the viewer that death is inevitable so they might then assess how one lives. Since we are reminded that death is inevitable, and in most theological systems, one’s actions in life dictate one’s fate after death, the Memento mori can be a powerful tool. You will find a lot of Memento mori symbolism with the Catholics, because with death in a Christian sense, comes Judgment. They are very fond of it and apparently find it efficacious. Most of the sites in my book are Catholic, and there are a few which are Orthodox."

Can we talk about some kind of trend for Memento moris in Europe?

"Well, first of all, I think we need to differentiate a few things. The trend for memento goes in and out of fashion over several centuries. You don’t find it much in the early Christian world. It starts becoming popular more during the medieval period, and there are any number of reasons potentially why – things as divergent as millennialism and the Black Plague have been mentioned by people who study this kind of thing, as well as many other reasons. In the end it is no doubt a confluence of factors. But if you are asking about the charnel houses, they start becoming popular in terms of openly displaying bones (with windows so you can look in, etc.) during this same period – so the charnel houses, which had been around for a long time as storage spaces – start to become used for Memento mori purposes at around the mid-to-late medieval period, and Memento mori motifs become popular in general. But that set of factors is not involved in these massive, extremely elaborate bone houses that start during the Baroque period. Those, I attribute to a strain of morbid religiosity that becomes part of Catholicism during the Counter-Reformation, especially within certain monastic orders."

Which one will leave you with the most unforgettable memory?

"That is a hard question to ask, but to answer, I will say this: the Palermo Catacombs are the most fantastic macabre site in the world. If I were to recommend only one place for someone to visit, if they really wanted a fantastic, bizarre, wonderful, and morbid experience, I would recommend the Palermo Catacombs."

What do our contemporaries now think about these places?

"I coined a term in the introduction to the book, the ‘dialogue with death’. By that, I mean the relationship and interaction one can have with the dead when death is considered not a terminus or an impassable boundary, but rather as a transition to another form of being. Nowadays, at least in Western (particularly European and American) culture, death is conceived of as an impassable boundary. So the idea that we would engage them, keep the dead visibly near us, and allow them to be a part of a religious sanctuary and a part of spiritual life, seems nowadays  as queer or perverse – in our terms, it almost seems to be a violation of taboo (in particular taboos about the treatment of the dead which we now expect, and taboos about what we consider appropriate for spiritual shrines). But the great ossuaries are indeed highly spiritual places, and they were highly appropriate in their own day (the fabulous ossuary in Rome, the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione, was paid for by the Pope and his family – if these are the people who paid to have it constructed, obviously it was totally orthodox and appropriate as a statement of Catholic faith). So the disconnect is on our end, not on the end of the ossuaries – it is a failure of modern preconception and interpretation which causes us to find these sites to be somehow strange or inappropriate."

What were the beliefs attached to the skulls?

"There could be any number of beliefs, a lot of it local folklore. There were various superstitions about how one could communicate with the dead through the skulls, and the souls could in turn do favors for the living. But there were other beliefs. In Greece, monks used to look at the color of the skull, or markings on it, as indications of someone’s fate, and whether they had made it to Heaven."

Could you tell and explain about the designs people used to paint on skulls through times?

"The Greek monks are the ones who actually started the skull painting, but they only did it to mark bones in case a person got raised to sainthood, so they would be able to find them and enshrine them. More famous is the kind of thing that later went on in the Alps, with the painting of the names and designs on the forehead of the skulls. Many, many parishes used to do it – nowadays it is mostly known through the town of Hallstatt in Austria, where there are still 600 painted skulls, but back in the day many towns had similar huge collections. Painting the skulls was a way to prevent the bones from becoming anonymous – in the bone pile everyone is equal, the mightiest and the most humble are indistinguishable. But some people didn’t like the idea that their relatives might be reduced to anonymity, so the painting of skulls preserved their identity and allowed a kind of family relic which could be fetishised."

Could you explain the meaning of the skull and crossed bones?

"The skull and crossbones have somehow been tied to pirates (thanks, Disney), but that is an old motif that was intended on the one hand as a Memento mori, but on the other, as the promise of redemption and resurrection – those bones would be raised again. The skull at the base of the crucifix is very old motif. It refers to the skull of Adam, and the idea that Christ was crucified over the spot where Adam died – Adam brings original sin, and with it, death to us all, and then Christ redeems it."

How do you explain this phenomenon that moved the skull from a sacred status to a popular icon?

"There are many things throughout history that have been sacred, but eventually wind up reduced to the kitsch of popular culture. In the case of these bones, I think the change comes during the Romantic period. There is a kind of darkness and macabre in Romanticism – you see it in the visual arts with painters like Henri Fuseli or Goya, you find it in literature with stuff like Frankenstein and gothic fiction. That period comes after the Enlightenment (in France), when a lot of things started getting desacrilised. Look, for instance, at what Voltaire (French writer) has to say about relics – he is calling relics basically a bunch of garbage. So preceding the Romantic era you have a period in which many things became desacrilised, and thus divested of their theological meaning. And like I said, there is a certain strain of dark Romanticism, and I think there is a group of highly creative people who are inspired by certain macabre themes as titillating because of their mysterious character, and they render them in a profane way which is very accessible to popular culture. To me, that movement is the turning point that redirects a motif like the skull from sacred to profane. It then becomes increasingly profaned through the 19th century before eventually in the 20th century, it’s ripe for commodification – it becomes a typical commercial motif, and at that point it degenerates into complete kitsch, devoid of any sacred meaning."

How do you explain this fascination for the skull even today?

"Well, I think the skull might even be more fascinating today than it was back then – because of the disconnection we have with death, the skull is maybe more mysterious to us than it was to someone in the 17th century, who was acculturated into seeing the real thing quite frequently. I don’t know that the skull was even particularly ‘fascinating’ for someone back then – they were quite used to tangible reminders of mortality. But the skull sure is fascinating for us. Like I said, I think it’s because we are so disconnected from the dead now."

Did you communicate with death during this study?

"I had a few experiences that would be classified as ‘occult’. You can interpret these things in so many ways, though – psychology, science, or metaphysics, the interpretation is always up to the individual, and there are no easy answers. I had one particularly bizarre incident in Bolivia (I had been researching the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, which is mentioned briefly in the book). I photographed some skulls that were considered sacred and had not been previously photographed – the photos disappeared (and the ones I had taken on film actually caught fire when they were being developed), and some other strange things happened which made everyone decide that one of the souls had followed me home."

The Empire of death by Paul Koudounaris

Ed: Thames & Hudson



Text: Pascal Bagot; Photography: Paul Koudounaris