Memento Mori: the beautiful ways we have kept the dead among the living
Art historian Paul Koudounaris travelled the world, visiting 30 countries to document the practices—ancient to modern, solemn to joyous—by which human remains are displayed. From good luck charms to genocide memorials, his gorgeous art book Memento Mori collects the finds.
Koudounaris is a skilled photographer, as the 500+ pictures in this oversized book attest, but even more so, he's a skilled and sensitive historian, who brings an anthropologist's empathy to the task of documenting and framing the varied practices depicted in the book.
The book opens with a highly readable, beautiful essay on the many ways that humanity has sought to maintain contact with their dead through preserved, displayed remains, and the political, moral and spiritual uses to which the dead have been put.
After this introduction, Koudounaris uses text sparingly and well, briskly presenting the facts and context for each of the image-sets in the book. He is every bit as scrupulously compassionate and respectful of the gilded mummies of Buddhist monks as he is in describing the Italian Capuchin monks who were mummified in great 17th century charnels. Koudounaris wants to get at the human roots of the phenomenon that has made the display of human remains a constant across so many societies and so many years -- he's not interested in cheap "ain't-they-strange" yucks.
500 images sounds like a lot, and in truth it is, but there's so much breadth and depth here that there could easily be twice as many.
The chapters are arranged thematically, rather than regionally or chronologically, beginning with "The Dead Will Rise: Macabre Masterpieces of the Nineteenth Century," featuring vast Christian ossuaries, including those in Czech and the famous Paris catacombs.
Another outstanding chapter is "Blessed Souls," which traces the "golden age" of Catholic ossuaries, created in response to the Protestant reformation's claims that the Church was sunk into lavish excess. During this period, the gilt and jewels of the great cathedrals were matched and exceeded by displays of bones and remains that beggar the imagination (these pictures are some of the most amazing in the book).
A chapter on memorials seems almost too broad for a book of this sort, but "They Shall Not Perish" concentrates on memorials in which remains are used to commemorate specific tragedies, rather than the human condition. Ranging from the Christian chapels where the bones of people killed in great fires were artfully arranged to the chilling, solemn, horrifying memorials of recent genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, this chapter is a beautiful testament to the way that the presence of the dead can call us to moral account even as they help us heal.
The most transnational chapter is "Remains to be Seen," which deals with mummification. The 16th-19th century Catholic practices of mummification of priests is contrasted with the mummies of the precolonial Philippines and the gilded mummies of Buddhist bodhisattvas in Japan.
I think my favorite chapter is "Crossing the Border," on the Bolivian practice of preserving "found" skulls as household charms and guardians. These ñatitas are kept in the privacy of their families homes most of the time, but once a year, they are paraded in La Paz for the Fiesta de las Ñatitas.
As with many art books in this age of digital galleries, the publisher of Memento Mori has gone to great pains to make the physical incarnation of this book as beautiful and sensual as possible. Oversized and padded with an embossed cover and spine, Memento Mori sports outstanding color prints (I haven't done them justice with my photographs of the book!) and beautiful design.
Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us [Paul Koudounaris/Thames and Hudson]
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