FDL Book Salon Welcomes Paul Koudounaris, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
Host, Wendy Fonarow:
Empire of Death is a comprehensive examination of the history of the Ossuaries and Charnel Houses in the European tradition. The bone houses, used for storage and decorative effects, present the living with the opportunity to confront or commune with death and the dead. Author, Art Historian and Photographer Paul Koudounaris’ central consideration in Empire of Death is the changing relations between the living and the dead as evinced in the treatment of bones and human bodies in these forms of monumental architecture.
Tracing ossuaries and charnel houses from the Middle Ages until the contemporary moment, Koudounaris found attitudes have ranged from ancestor worship and convivial communications to a desire to separate the living and the dead. The research documents how ossuaries and charnel houses have served different functions that either encouraged or discouraged the living to engage the dead. At times, the charnel house was at the center of religious life and at other moments they were ignored, dismantled, or treated as macabre curiosities. The vast and awesome displays of death served different functions: as memento mori, as a means to connect to the realm of the supernatural, as stark reminders of death’s egalitarian nature, as a critique that mocks the vanities of the living, as aesthetic productions of morbid fascination and even attempts to reproduce forms of social inequality in the afterworld. [cont’d.]
The charnel house was both a choice and a necessity. As European communities became more densely occupied the treatment of human remains was a continuing question. Limited cemetery space meant often times there was a need to disinter bones. What to do with these bones was of great interest to the living as the handling and location was intimately connected to notions of the soul in the afterworld.
Koudounaris’ meticulous research is shown in both vivid and remarkably sumptuous photography. Empire of Death provides sufficient cultural context for the reader to understand the changing attitudes towards death in the Europe tradition. The text is organized around the significant historic periods of the ossuaries where human remains were organized in vastly different architectural, ornamental, and artistic displays. The photography captures both the scope and exquisite detail of the ossuary tradition: skeletons dressed in military or religious finery, skulls used to trace traditional elements of architectural design, femurs stacked in the shape of crosses, vast caches as background to sculptures and even skeletons used to play the role of death itself. The intimate imagery encourages the reader to consider our own relationship to death and the dead.