The Empire of Death

(B. Koudounaris)

Those who have gone before well outnumber those of the transitory present and are more swiftly forgotten.  It is now overwhelmingly the fashion in Australia to incinerate the dead – burial is a considerable ongoing expense and the real estate is rented (in due course, urban cemeteries will reclaim the space).  This incredible book shows and tells us of the veneration of the dead in 17C-19C catholic Europe (and parts of South America and south east Asia) in ossuaries and charnel houses.

The pictures have to be seen to be believed: mountains of bones; garlands of skulls, cages and display cabinets of bones; crosses of skulls, chapels of bones encrusted with skulls, immense grinning cairns of skulls; bones dressed, whitened with lime, lovingly painted or inscribed.  Emblematic of the antique catholic tendency to emphasize the majesty of death, these shrines also speak with eloquent silence to our non-doctrinal need, as Freud expressed it, “to make friends with the necessity of dying.”  This is beautifully written and researched, though it will give a modern sensibility the absolute creeps.

'The Triumph of Death' by Pieter Breghel the Elder

‘The Triumph of Death’ by Pieter Breghel the Elder

[TVC notes the recent publication that may be of interest, A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge, a moribund lady’s tour of ossuaries in central Europe (sadly, the author has now joined the Great Majority). A possible review for the future.]

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