BB Contest Awards 5

The time has come to reveal the results of the fifth edition of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest!

This year, the entries were once again numerous and full of imagination, and I sincerely thank all the participants: our family of bizarre creatives gets bigger and bigger every year, and this can only fill me with pride.

Let’s get started!

Sambuco envisioned, for his vintage composition, “an old-time newsie intent on shouting, in these words, the praises of Bizzarro Bazar’s hypothetical store of wonders.” No better way to start!

For all the world’s
Satiated souls
Fascinated
By the unexplored
Seeking the wonder
To which our brains
Are unaccustomed!

Run hungry
Run fast
For every taste
And personality
There are stories
Of life and death
Of strange and macabre
Amenities!

Run curious
Run fast
For every taste
And sensibility
Bizzarro Bazar’s store
Opens its doors
Of wonder!

(Sambuco: Instagram)

Any fortune teller can read the future regarding classic questions about health, love or work.
But the fortune teller envisioned by Andrea Kendall Berg answers only strange and unusual questions — thanks to the intercession of her wacky otherworldly friends.
The only downside: the tarots end up giving the same answer every time…

(Andrea Kendall Berg: Instagram)

Elena Baila, in those idle, torrid days of summer, created this little animation that, in addition to paying homage to Bizzarro Bazar, seems to me to be an excellent advertisement about the risks of prolonged exposure to the sun.

(Elena Baila: Instagram, Facebook)

Perhaps works of art should never be analyzed in search of literal metaphors, but in Debora Campagnoli’s self-portrait, it almost seems as if her eyes have decided to look at the world through the lens of the Macabre… resulting in the brilliant colors of life in bloom breaking through the monochrome.

(Debora Campagnoli: Facebook)

ElaGhi has composed a lyric with a romantic, crepuscular tenor: lending her voice to a statue, her verses transport us to the mournful, decadent atmosphere of a Victorian cemetery.
Who among us would not want to walk among those bumpy tombstones under a leaden sky?

(ElaGhi: Instagram, Facebook)

Here’s a question that everyone asks themselves at one time or another: can a flayed woman still be beautiful and sensual?
What’s that you say? You never wondered? Dude, you really are strange.
In any case, Pamela Annunziata shows us that the answer is unequivocally positive. (Pamela Annunziata: Instagram, Facebook)

“I am vast, I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman.
Eleonora’s surrealist collage seems to suggest a similar inner immensity — with that anatomical Venus from whose entrails, as in a fantastic eruption, phrenological heads, Phoenix Arabs, circuses and hot air balloons emerge…

(Eleonora – Lola thumbnails: Instagram, Facebook)

Astrid, who sends me her work from Germany, created this fairy-tale chamber of wonders; the truly original solution is that she used an AI image generator to fill it with arcane and mysterious objects, then integrated the results into her digital painting.
The result is a Hermetical and indecipherable wunderkammer!

Regarding his stunning new creation, André ElRagno Santapaola writes, “I was inspired by two themes that are very dear to me, which I discovered and delved into precisely thanks to Ivan: anatomical preparations and Witkin’s magnificent photographs.
I made this silicone sculpture using a live cast, which I then tried to paint it in a hyperrealistic way. Being my first attempt with these techniques and materials, I am satisfied with the result.
I later set up the photograph by adding elements taken from my wunderkammer (the book is last year’s special prize!); the result is an anatomical preparation of a bizarre, yet beneficial, disease: curiosity.”
If you need a special effects artist for your next movie, now you know who to call! (André ElRagno Santapaola: Instagram, Facebook)

Illustrator Dimitri Fogolin places me in a singular tech-noir setting, where shady individuals with additional limbs implanted on their backs roam, where distinguished ladies wear gas masks, trains are sentient biomechanical hybrids, and mysterious dark ladies plot in the shadows.
Which is actually is a pretty accurate description of my everyday life. (Dimitri Fogolin: Instagram, Facebook, website)

It is no mystery that I have a soft spot for Elena Simoni a.k.a. Psychonoir’s tiny, delightful drawings, so much so that above my desk hangs the post-mortem portrait she gave me for last year’s contest .
This time Elena imagined a procession of freaks, saints, mummies and monsters (all inspired by topics I have covered over the years), marching to support the right to be proudly weird.
The only rally I would gladly attend in my life. (Elena Simoni Psychonoir: Instagram, Facebook )

WINNERS

Third prize

“There is treasure everywhere.”
With this phrase (borrowed from a volume of Calvin & Hobbes) Elisa Caviola presents her work, which won third place not only for its very elegant graphic rendering, but especially because it mixes digital techniques with an ancient and fascinating nineteenth-century printing method: cyanotype.

Elisa writes, “Lucky are those who look at the world with awe and wonder, because so much magic and beauty surrounds them. Especially in places where no one looks.” And even just watching the chemical process take place, and the cyan-blue emerge ever brighter, is something enchanting:

And here is the completed work: (Elisa Caviola: Instagram, Facebook)

Second prize

Chiara Toniolo, who won second place, decided to portray herself as an anatomical Venus intent on reading my book Mors pretiosa; what struck me, besides her beautiful pencil stroke, was the unusual atmosphere, languid and homely, and that almost casual caress of the skeletal cat…
Chiara says, “I could have depicted one of the many wax Venuses in anatomical museums, but it’s my professional deformation as an artistic nude model that’s to blame: I always have to put my face in it, and this time my guts too!” (Chiara Toniolo: Instagram, Facebook)

First prize

Gaberricci had also participated in our contest a couple of years ago, winning the third prize; this year, however, he really outdid himself, creating a very tasty and amazing whimsical crossword puzzle.
Virtually ALL of the definitions in these crossword puzzles refer to some article or video I posted here on the blog!
A true masterpiece of humor and puzzles, which will require a lot of effort to solve but, possibly, will make you discover (or remember) a myriad of unexpected and curious stories. What better to ask for?

(Gaberricci: website)

We have come to the end, and I am, as always, touched and moved. Once again, thank you to all the participants for gifting me with these wonderful works; I hope you enjoyed making them as well.
If you enjoyed any particular work, please remember to show your appreciation to the authors in the comments section.

Keep The World Weird!

Upcoming September Events

A five-week course on the representation of death through the ages, a meeting at a curious film festival, a conference about a major archaeological find… here are September’s events!

Starting September 3, and continuing with a date every Saturday, I will teach a 5-week online course for Morbid Anatomy on the iconology of death from antiquity to social networks. It will be a richly illustrated journey spanning three thousand years, tracing the historical variations and semantic richness of allegories of death: from the depictions of the ancient world (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans) to the medieval danse macabre, from the “Triumphs of Death” to Flemish vanitas, from dissected corpses in early modern anatomical illustrations to the morbid infatuations of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from surrealist experiments to contemporary artists who include authentic corpses in their works. Find more information and the opportunity to register on the Morbid Anatomy page; the course will be held via Zoom in English.

On Sept. 6, I will be a guest at Garofano Rosso, Italy’s “smallest and coldest” film festival to be held in Forme di Massa d’Albe (AQ). It’s been many years since this tiny hamlet in the heart of the Abruzzo Apennines served as the location for John Houston’s The Bible (1966) and Valerio Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars (1976); but, thanks to the good spirits of a group of passionate young folks, once a year Forme gets to “breathe cinema” again, with a surprisingly rich program of free screenings and events. When they invited me, I accepted enthusiastically, because on the one hand such an initiative cannot leave my cinephile soul cold (cinema has been my first love, and was my main job for almost twenty years), and on the other hand this is a moving example of cultural commitment and resistance.

Finally, on September 9, I will take part in a major conference, where the details of an exceptional historical find will be released. Nothing was known about the whereabouts of the remains of the Marquises Pallavicino, one of Italy’s most important feudal families, until a wooden box containing human bones and bearing the names of Gian Lodovico I, Anastasia Torelli, Rolando II and Laura Caterina Landi was discovered in 2020, walled inside the Basilica of Cortemaggiore (PC).

During the meeting (to be held at 9 p.m. at the Eleonora Duse Theater in Cortemaggiore) the results of the archaeological investigations carried out on the remains will be announced, and I will be in prestigious company: speakers include paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, bioarchaeologist Alessandra Morrone and historian Marco Pellegrini.

Bizzarro Bazar Contest 5

Here we are at the 13th birthday of Bizzarro Bazar, and the 5th Bizzarro Bazar Contest!
As in previous years, I like to celebrate this recurrence by awarding prizes for the most macabre, creepy and wacky fantasy; to participate just stick to the rules, which are always the same:

  1. Create an original contribution that makes explicit reference to Bizarro Bazar;
  2. Post your work on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #bizzarrobazarcontest – alternatively, you can send it via email;
  3. The deadline is September 15, 2022;
  4. Remember, the idea is to give free rein to your weirdest creativity in a safe space where a morbid mind is valued and cherished — you’re among friends here!

“Explicit reference” means that Bizzarro Bazar (the site, the logo, one of the books, even my goatee) must be depicted/mentioned/included within the contribution. Keep in mind that, while promoting your creations, I also want to promote this blog. Win-win.
For a better understanding you can take a look at the first, second, third and fourth edition entries.

And now to the prizes:

1st prize: T-shirt of your choice + mug of your choice from the official store + surprise gift
2nd prize: T-shirt of your choice from the official store + surprise gift
3rd prize: T-shirt of your choice from the official store

The best unclassified entries will still be published on Bizarro Bazar with links to the authors’ websites/profiles, and shared on social media.

Have fun! Keep the World Weird!

Women Unleashed: A Recollection of Demonic Possession

The only time I’ve ever seen a person possessed by a “demon” was during a stint in Tanzania. I was in Dar es Salaam together with a shambling crew, composed mostly of friends, to shoot television footage in the finest residences as well as in the slums of the city; a project devoid of sense and future, which would have lost us quite a lot of money (also on the account of our ignorance of the local culture and mentality, at the time of accepting the assignment), but which had catapulted us into a dreamlike dimension.

One evening we were filming a concert in a nightclub — which I certainly could not locate now, since many streets in that city have no name. When the work was done, we had stayed for a drink.
At a given moment, something happened. The young girls on the dance floor took to courting the males with unrestrained mapouka. It had all happened in the space of a minute: an ordinary dance hall had suddenly turned into a menagerie of quivering buttocks, fiercely swaying hips and explicit simulations of copulation between women, during which one of the girls theatrically took on the male role and pretended to take the other from behind. All the athletic and handsome males had moved to the sides, and leaned on the handrails surrounding the dance floor, while the maidens tried to get their attention with pressing and gradually more obscene dances. On the sidelines of this orgiastic and flamboyant, exquisitely feminine enactment, which was almost innocent by virtue of a serene erotic nonchalance, we stood astonished, a group of white Westerners completely ignored by those present. That sensual spectacle ended as it had begun, without warning or perhaps following a signal we could not pick up on, and the girls went back to dancing in a more traditional way.

A few hours later, returning late at night in the minivan to the hotel, we stopped at an intersection because we heard screaming. Nearby was a woman writhing on the ground, arching her pelvis inhumanly, while a huddle of people had gathered all around. There were those who were trying to hold her down, comforting her and caressing her, but her writhing and screaming did not seem to abate. That frenzied wiggling, with her legs spreading and her chest flexing and curving, had a kind of impudent quality: a loss of inhibitory restraints that made the spectacle not certainly exciting, but rather unseemly.

One of our escorts, an impassive and indecipherable dark-skinned sixty-something man, whom everyone called “Uncle”, rolled down the car window and asked what was going on. He received back a few words in Swahili from one of the onlookers, rolled his window back up, and we set off again in silence as if nothing had happened. Later I asked our interpreter what Uncle and that man had said to each other on the street, and what had happened to the woman we had all seen in convulsive spasms. She was the victim of a spell, he told me, she was possessed by spirits; those people were waiting for the neighborhood shaman who would soon come to “take away” the demons.

That night, back in my room, catching sleep was impossible: the feeling that I had attended not one but two mysteries did not leave me. Somehow, in my mind, I sensed that there was, perfectly clear and undeniable, a connection between the girls seducing the males by feigning intercourse with each other, and the possessed woman uncontrollably screaming in the dust. I could not have said exactly what invisible thread connected the two experiences I had just had, but I knew it was there.

In the years that followed, I reflected on it often. Although the situation of women’s rights in Tanzania has improved over time, the society is still highly patriarchal, and gender discrimination, violence, abuse, and harassment of women is still widespread. What I had witnessed were two episodes in which transgression — namely that of the liberated female body — was instead permitted, as it was well regulated.

The obscene and unbecoming dance called mapouka (which also involved gender reversal, in the assumption of the male role to mimic intercourse) was possible insofar as it was sanctioned by the context: the confines of the discotheque, and the agreed-upon time limits. One thus danced only in that place, and for a specific time frame.

Similarly, the phenomenon of possession — which might at first glance appear to be an event of disruption of the social order — actually has precise cultural norms and functions. As Moreno Paulon writes,

no society seems to be unprepared for possession. If the spiritic onset can disrupt and mark the existence of an individual or a class of individuals, no cultural order is disrupted or comes into crisis when possession manifests itself in one of its members. Human cultures have developed a wide variety of conventions, such as well-established rituals and symbolic interpretations, that accompany and guide the episode. Often an elected group is instructed to categorize and manage the phenomenon: it cures a sick person where possession is considered the symptom of a pathology; it interprets the oracle when the possessed person is a bridge and his word a message from beyond; it exorcises the possessed person if a malevolent spirit is believed to have seized her body. But the idea that possession is necessarily related to “evil” and that it must be responded to by exorcism is only one among many cultural constructions in the world. Within the order of a society, a cult of possession can serve the most varied functions: it can confirm or rediscuss the balance of power between the sexes, consecrate a national identity, legitimize a ruling family, or even express class suffering, consolidate a moral system, direct political decisions, indicate marital alliances.

(M. Paulon, Sulla possessione spiritica, in AA.VV., Il diavolo in corpo, 2019, Meltemi)

Here then, in the span of one evening, I had witnessed two moments in which the female body expressed itself at once irregularly and regulatedly. The mapouka and the spirit possession, when considered in relation to a generally oppressed female condition, appear as “authorized rebellions”: escape valves, on the surface, but deep down devices of self-discipline, micro-techniques of control of the system, a bit like Carnival was the inversion of hierarchies approved by the hierarchies themselves.

Unleashed sexuality, free from the constraints of culture, is not permissible. It is the nightmare of any authority. On that torrid African night I attended not one, but two mysteries — which were perhaps the same: a millennial battle between repressive and expressive impulses, a conflict that exploits the language of myth and ecstasy, but takes place always and only on the female body.

Skull Mold

Human usnea — that is, the mold that grew on skulls — was believed to be an extraordinary pharmaceutical remedy for many ills.

Here is a new video of mine discussing it (turn English subtitles on!):

 

Taxiderman

On Friday, June 17, I will be in Padua for a very unique event, an evening devoted entirely to taxidermy and the sociological, psychological and cultural implications of the art of stuffing animals.

At 9 p.m. inside the prestigious Zuckermann Palace there will be a screening of Taxiderman, directed by Rossella Laeng, a documentary focusing on the work of taxidermist Alberto Michelon.

I wrote about him five years ago, in this post: besides being the only taxidermist in Italy to offer “artistic” (i.e., non-naturalistic) taxidermy creations, Alberto also specializes in taxidermy of pets.

I have always found it very moving that different species manage to create a deep relationship with each other, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the coldness of the world; when the affection between a human being and another animal becomes so intense, it is clear that grieving can be difficult and painful. For this reason, on Friday we will also discuss taxidermy in relation to pet grief with various personalities from science and culture: in addition to the meeting with Alberto Michelon and director Rossella Laeng, the evening will therefore include talks by Anna Cordioli (psychoanalyst), Stefania Uccheddu (Head of the Service of Behavioral Medicine, Clinic S. Marco), Gianni Vitale (journalist, President Promovies), and myself. I will talk about the history of taxidermy and its relationship to other types of remains preservation, such as relics.

If you would like to reserve your ticket for the evening, you can do so on Eventbrite. I look forward to seeing you there!

The Heretical Kiss: Eros and Obscenity in the Sabbath

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

In medieval literature we find a disgusting kiss, with which the fearless knight brings back to human shape the beautiful princess turned into a dragon or a snake: it is the fier basier, which in folklore is linked, with reversed roles and genders, to the fairy tale of the Frog Prince collected and made famous by the brothers Grimm. In these stories, the kiss is a heroic act, which overcomes the disgust aroused by the contact with a slimy creature linked to the underworld, water, with a strong atavistic and dark ambivalence.

In the horror it arouses, such an ordeal recalls another unclean effusion narrated in medieval texts — the manuals of demonology: the osculum infame. This is the infamous kiss under the tail of the Devil, or of one of his animal manifestations (the donkey, the goat, the black cat): the supreme expression of the obscene adoration paid on the occasion of the Sabbath to the Dark Lord in his corporeal form, in the most humiliating way possible, by his followers.

The osculum infame, even if it has first of all a “juridical”, contractual and ritual value, as we will see, is also among the sexual practices without reproductive purpose attributed to Satan’s followers, next to sodomy and demonic coitus, which, as M. Barbezat explains about heretical sexuality, constitute a mockery of Christian charity. It is considered an unnatural act, linked to the world of promiscuous relationships with animals, so much so that it recalls the fier basier we mentioned at the beginning. Barbezat notes how in the sabbath the novices associate themselves with the sect with a ritual intended to make them spiritually dead and poisonous for the rest of the human community: that is why first of all they kiss the toad, emblem of sensuality and physical decay, whose drool erases in them any memory of Catholic faith, and then they join in a group intercourse considered a sacred act of veneration. The empty pleasure they derive from their relations with demons and other heretics produces no lasting fruit, only death: the children thus conceived are reduced to ashes during cruel offerings to the Devil and/or consumed in a cannibalistic meal.

The demonic copulation

Witch sex is the way by which heretics, reduced to mere bodies, form a damned, biologically unproductive, spiritually inert unit. Just as believers become one with and in Christ, becoming members of the body of the Risen One on earth (that is, of the Church), so the damned associate in its inverted mirror image: a diabolical body, a prisoner of decayed matter in life and of Hell after death, of which Satan is the head. It is quite a literal union, reflecting the reduction in the cognitive abilities of the participants, due to their departure from the Holy Spirit. This is the brute materiality of the medieval heretics, who, though endowed with a soul, lost it the moment they denied Christ, condemning themselves to being mere bodies.

The attention to the witches’ heretical sexuality derives from the conviction of demonologists and inquisitors according to which the human body would be extremely vulnerable to diabolic predation and to the aberrant sexual phenomena related to it. In fact, as the Malleus Maleficarum explains, the Devil’s power resides in the intimate parts of human beings, especially women, whose unbridled lust leads to witchcraft and carnal knowledge of demons. This is a salient point of the sabbath stereotype: the reality of the coupling between the gathering participants and the evil spirits — if not even Satan himself — is taken for granted, so much so that diabolical copulation constitutes a fundamental attribute without which one is not considered a witch. The carnal knowledge is also seen as irrefutable proof of the existence of demons — and consequently of angels, as W. Stephens writes in Demon Lovers: while angels do not interact with mortals, demons mate with human beings, like gods and mythological creatures of ancient Greece, of which they are the diabolic form. Female demons, in particular, are reminiscent of certain shape-shifting infernal creatures with vampire-like characteristics, such as empusas and sirens. Greedy of sperm, milk and blood, these figures were already present in Greek mythology as the entourage of Hecate tricephalous; they were believed to suck the vital force of men — with whom they were able to unite sexually, even if they were spirits or ghosts of dead people, therefore without a physical body. Demonology, in dealing with them, draws on Genesis (Gen 6,1-4), on the apocryphal tradition (1 Enoch) and on Augustine’s De civitate Dei (XV, 23), which defines as possible the demonic intercourse but not diabolic paternity, since such an intercourse is destined to remain infertile.

Like spirits, demons are incorporeal, but by condensing the air they can create a temporary body, of which they can even vary the gender: they first take the female form of succubus (“who lies below”) to get the seed of a man, with which they then impregnate a woman by assuming the form of incubus (“who lies above”). This stratagem is sometimes replaced by the use of a momentarily reanimated corpse as a male vehicle, or by the collaboration between an incubus and a succubus, according to those demonologists for whom even evil spirits are gendered (in such a view, the number of male demons clearly exceeds that of female demons, precisely because of the bottomless concupiscence of women). This is a practice that in the first phase of demonology is motivated by the horror against sodomy attributed to the demons. Evil spirits would refuse to mate with a male human being — a theory which will be later abandoned in favor of a devilish sexuality without limits. In any case, this activity is carried out with a superhuman speed, which explains why the demonic phallus is felt to be cold by human partners. Moreover, according to some, such coitus is extremely painful, because of the disproportionate size of the diabolic member, of its icy temperature and/or of its bifurcation, aimed at simultaneous double penetration; according to others, on the contrary, copulation with a demon would be much more pleasant than that with a man, so much so that the devil is feared by mortals even as a sexual rival. In the wake of Augustine, as we have said, it is a kind of mating that is considered unhealthy because it does not lead to the birth of “children of the devil” in the literal sense: these children, conceived by women impregnated with human sperm that the demons have “stolen”, are in fact human too.

The infamous kiss

The accusation of kissing the buttocks of the devil, of a demon or of a fellow witch appears very frequently among the sacrilegious acts performed by groups considered heretical, between the 12th and the 17th century. After being passed down as part of the scandalous behavior of the early Christians, and before being attributed to the participants of the “synagogue” (as the legend was initially called), the infamous rumor first struck the Cathars, then the Waldensians, the Fraticelli, and the French Publicans or “Paterini”. These were the congregations of fervent Christians who, precisely because they were deeply involved in the Christian creed, were suspected of profaning it, that is, of heresy. After the heretics, the osculum infame will be used as an accusation in the trial of the chivalrous order of the Templars (1307-1312), but also against Gilles de Rais: infamous cases in which the suspicions of magic are coupled with rumors of sexual disorder, in order to damage eminent personalities by making them victims of defamation and political repression. Satanic veneration by means of obscene kisses were therefore routinely included in the stereotype of the sabbath ceremonial, but only once the figure of the witch passed from being a victim of diabolic deception (as claimed by the Canon Episcopi) to guilty accomplice of the Evil One.

The official break was sanctioned by the bull Super illius specula of Pope John XXII (1326-1327), in which, forging the theological and legal image of witchcraft that will become dominant, it was stated the existence of a new devil-worshipping sect devoted to a vile slavery and allied with death. In this conspiratorial viewpoint, which sees Christianity besieged from all sides by the Anti-church of Satan, the idea of a real society of witches is outlined, intent on a systematic destruction of human society. The description of the ungodly and harmful activities of this malignant collectivity had already been sketched, but only at a local German level, by the bull Vox in Rama of Pope Gregory IX (1233); after the spread of collective panic and the crisis following the Plague of 1348, the demonological doctrine is consolidated, officially outlined by the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus of Innocent VIII (1484) and then by the manual Malleus Maleficarum (1487), real summa contra maleficas (as Cardini defines it) that of the papal bull is the commentary as well as the implementation that starts the repression of the crime of witchcraft.

This is how demonology arose, a “science of evil” elaborated in opposition to magic as an “evil science”: it became the main vehicle for the transmission of knowledge regarding this crime, while juridical processes assumed the secondary function of validating what was written in the manuals. In these writings, great attention is paid to the rituals of the coven, among which stands out precisely the kiss in “ignoble” parts of the body, human or not. In the sabbath, therefore, the faithful, having got down on their knees and having abjured the Christian faith, first kiss a toad (on the anus or on the mouth, licking its slime and tongue), then, if they have obtained the right to do so by committing crimes and excesses instigated by the Enemy of mankind, they kiss the black cat under the tail, profane the consecrated host and abandon themselves to an indiscriminate alimentary and sexual orgy.

However, as P. Mazzantini explains in the opening of his excellent monograph on the subject, even if “a form of eroticism is present in the osculum infame and is linked to the image of the union between the devil and the witch, or the heretics, which took place during the course of the sabbath”, the erotic element is not the fundamental aspect of the obscene kiss. In fact, with this gesture the witches first of all materialize the bond that binds them to their Dark Lord, sealing a relationship that is not equal but of subjection: it is therefore an emblem of diabolic affiliation, not a sexual act.

The kiss in the Middle Ages derives its value from the fact of being both a gesture and a symbol, affixed as a confirmation of the effectiveness of an act (social, religious, legal), with which a free man spontaneously became “man of another”, binding to him in a position of personal dependence with an oath of fidelity. However, the kiss also possesses a certain ambivalence connected to the mouth, which means that it can also be a physical expression of degradation or derisive punishment (undermining the moral integrity of the giver but not the receiver); depending on which part is kissed, it indicates the degree of equality between the kisser and the kissed. In this sense, when used by a heretic in homage to a creature rather than the Creator, in supreme perversion of the Law (Ex 20:3), the kiss then constitutes the ultimate offense to God. A blasphemous and grotesque reversal, it mocks both the cult of the Lamb and the liturgical osculum pacis, both the ritual vassalistic kiss and the pax christiana announced by the Eucharistic peace. In short, it is an inversion of the “normal” kiss, which was the emblem of a whole series of public rites, of chivalrous or clerical ordination, as well as a spiritual sign of Christian unity. The kiss on the back is a joke with which the devil tyrant mocks his subjects, demanding a degrading submission just as the Lord does with his vassals.

The Sabbath: a fictitious reversal?

On the other hand, the entire ceremonial of the sabbath is dominated by a downward tension — in an eschatological but also scatological sense. This attention to the lower part of the body (belly, genitals) and to its functions (digestive, excretory, generative) is linked to the concept of the “lower body” that, according to scholars, played a dominant role in the grotesque realism typical of medieval carnival and parodies (M. Bachtin).

The anal sphincter is but the equivalent of a mouth opening on the “upside-down face”; thus the kiss on the anus is the opposite of a chaste kiss. This idea is consistent with the vision of witchcraft as a negative image of the Catholic faith: even the sabbath, in its various moments, is described as a “Mass in reverse” built on a precise inversion of the liturgy.

To open the satanic dances is the adoration of the Devil by the witches, who on their knees renew their fidelity and renouncement to the Christian faith, confessing their sins (which are, specularly, what Christians would define as “good deeds”) and the maleficia they committed for the glory of their infernal sovereign. The anti-sacrament that seals their vow, confirming their apostasy to the Christian faith, is precisely the kiss that each witch gives in turn (not always on the back: sometimes also on the left foot/eye or on the genitals of the one who presides over the assembly). This “crescendo of profanation” is followed by a Eucharist made of black shoe soles and nauseating liquid, by a revolting banquet (Mazzantini), and finally by a promiscuous orgy.

However, the sabbath cancels social order only in appearance. Of course, the celestial hierarchy is overthrown by putting the devil in the place of God and demons in the place of angels, but the position of men with respect to the Dark Lord remains unchanged: as Mazzantini explains, “the followers of witchcraft change religion, becoming the believers of a creed that is an overturned mirror of the previous one, but they maintain the constant role of believers and above all of servants”.

In spite of all these reversals, in short, men are always subjects. For this reason, the ceremony of the unclean kiss, even if susceptible to some sexual nuances, remains above all the representation of a power dynamic: the expression of a society that, even in describing the most obscene, scandalous and iconoclastic rebellion, is unable to imagine itself as anything other than submissive to a greater will.

Costanza De Cillia has a PhD in Philosophy and Science of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of capital execution

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 26

Welcome to this Easter edition of the column that collects various treats and bizarre delicacies from the internet. Depicted above is a party I’d really feel comfortable, painted by an anonymous seventeenth-century Tuscan artist.
And we’re off and running!

  • Let us begin with a short collection of last words spoken on the guillotine stage.
  • And here is a bridge of ants.
  • During the work to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral, after a fire devastated it three years ago, a mysterious leaden sarcophagus was unearthed. The casket in all probability dates back to the 14th century, and it will be opened shortly: who knows if it contains a hunchbacked skeleton.
  • How would you react if, searching for your home on Google Street View, you saw mom and dad sitting on the porch… who have been dead for years? Would that image distress you, make you suffer? Or, on the contrary, would you look at it with emotion and affection, because that picture still makes you feel close to them? Would you ask Google to remove the image, or keep it forever in memory? With the growth of Street View, this sort of thing is happening more and more often, and it’s just one of the many ways the internet is changing grief processing.

  • The gentleman above is one of the founding fathers of the United States, Gouverneur Morris, who had a particularly odd and eventful life: at the age of 28 he was run over by a carriage and lost a leg; he later helped write the Constitution, then was sent to France where he had a string of lovers and managed to escape the Revolution unscathed. Back in the US, he finally decided to put his head straight and marry Ann Cary Randolph, his housekeeper, who incidentally some years before had been accused of infanticide. In short, how could such a man close his existence with a flourish? In 1816 Gouverneur Morris, who suffered from prostate, died as a result of internal injuries caused by self-surgery: in an attempt to unblock the urinary tract, he had used a whale bone as an improvised catheter. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • Ten years ago I posted an article (Italian only)  about the Dylatov Pass incident, one of the longest-running historical mysteries. In 2021, two Swiss researchers published on Nature a study that would seem to be, so far, the most scientifically plausible explanation for the 1959 tragedy: the climbers could have been killed by a violent and anomalous avalanche. Due possibly to the boredom of last year’s lockdown, this theory did once again trigger the press, social media, conspiracy theorists, romantic fans of the abominable snowmen, and so on. Before long, the two researchers found themselves inundated with interview requests. They therefore performed three new expeditions to Dylatov Pass and published a second study in which, in addition to confirming their previous findings, they also report in an amused tone about the media attention they received and the social impact of their publication.
  • An autopsy was held last October in Portland in front of a paying audience. The great Cat Irvin, who is curator of anatomical collections at the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh, was interviewed on the ethical implications of pay-per-view autopsies. (Cat also runs a beautiful blog called Wandering Bones, and you can find her on Instagram and Twitter)
  • Below, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria dressed as a mummy for a souvenir photo, (circa 1895). Via Thanatos Archive.

  • If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? What if a bear plays the piano in an empty house?
  • A tweet that offers a novel (and, frankly, kind of gross) perspective on our skeleton.
  • On April 22, 1969, the most hallucinatory and shocking opera of all time was staged at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies. The protagonist of the drama is King George III, who suffered from an acute mental illness: consequently, the entire composition is intended to be a depiction of the schizophrenic cacophony inside his head. The six musicians (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano/harpsichord, violin and cello) played inside gigantic birdcages; interpreting the verses, the cries and the sudden changes of mood of the mad King, was a baritone with 5 octaves of extension (!) dressed in a straitjacket. The opera, lasting half an hour, was a completely unprecedented assault on conventional rules, as well as on the ears of the spectators who had certainly never heard anything like it: the one-act play culminated in the moment when the king stole the violin from the player and tore it to pieces. If you have 28 minutes and want to try your hand at this disturbing representation of madness — a unique example of classical punk music, at least for its attitude — here is a 2012 video in which the solo part is played by Kelvin Thomas who, at the time of filming, was 92 years old.

Now, two pieces of slightly more personal news.
The first is that my upcoming online lecture (in English) for Morbid Anatomy will take place on May 14, and will focus on the cult of the dead in Naples.
Info and tickets here.

Secondly, if you can read Italian, I would like to remind you that the Almanacco dell’Italia occulta, edited by Fabrizio Foni and Fabio Camilletti, has been published by Odoya: following the line of the previous Almanacco dell’orrore popolare, this volume collects several contributions by different authors. If the first book, however, focused on the rural dimension of our country, this new anthology examines the urban context, exploring its hidden, fantastic and “lunar” face. Among the essays by more than 20 authors included in the Almanacco there is also my study of the weirdest, most picturesque and unexpectedly complex newspaper in the history of the Italian press: Cronaca Vera, which with its pulp and fanciful titles has left an indelible mark on our imagination.

In conclusion, I wish you all the best and I take my leave with an Easter meme.
Until next time!

The Natural Mummies of Ferentillo

Italy is the country that, in all likelihood, boasts the largest number of mummies in the world. Apart from Egypt, in fact, no other culture has made mummification of the dead such a pervasive and long-lived practice as it has happened in our peninsula: in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo alone, there are more than 1200 mummies, and the ancient “scolatoi” (drainers), used to dehydrate the remains of the deceased, are found almost everywhere, from Lombardy to Puglia.

In addition to artificial mummification, in Italy there are some cases of spontaneous mummification, in which the corpses escaped the normal processes of putrefaction due to the particular microclimate of the burial ground.
One of the most remarkable examples of natural preservation is found in the heart of Italy, on the southern border of Umbria.

Located in the Valnerina valley, the Umbrian municipality of Ferentillo remains perched at the foot of the ruins of its ancient fortress. The inhabited area, divided by the Nera river (and today by the provincial road) into two villages called Precetto and Matterella, was originally founded by the Lombards; it was later assigned by Pope Innocent VIII to his natural son Franceschetto Cybo.

Franceschetto, who over the years accumulated excellent fiefdoms and appointments, in reality always lived on income due to the fact that he was the legitimate son of the Pope and, it is said, was a somewhat dissolute character, utterly devoted to pleasures: it is no coincidence that he died in 1519 for indigestion during an official banquet. This did not prevent him, however, from making the small town of Ferentillo, which had been his first county, flourish architecturally; under his reign, and later that of his son Lorenzo, the village became an important cultural center.

In the half of the town called Precetto, the Cybo family had a church dedicated to Santo Stefano built on the foundations of a previous temple.

Thus, under the new church, the spaces which originally constituted the medieval place of worship were filled with resulting materials and used as a burial ground: the deceased of Precetto were entombed here until the second half of the 19th century.

About a decade before the cemetery was definitively abandoned, the remains were exhumed and 25 bodies were found to have spontaneously mummified.

In 1861, the doctor and politician Carlo Maggiorani examined some of these mummies, with the help of chemist Vincenzo Latini.
In his report to the Accademia dei Lincei(1)C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862., published the following year, Maggiorani noted how the mummification had maintained the somatic features of the deceased in an exceptional way: “There is a centenary mummy in which the descendants are able to recognize at a glance the features of their family, and if it were necessary to declare it before the Forum it could be easily determined whether it was Mr So-and-so, or not. […] The color of these mummies, which tends to yellowish, does not differ much from the natural color of corpses, and therefore does not inspire the disgust usually excited by dead bodies preserved by means of art. The hair, beard, eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit and pubic hair, nails remain to decorate the regions where they are distributed.

Over time, the mummies of Ferentillo have most likely lost much of the “freshness” that Maggiorani had found and praised so much, but hair and nails remain effectively visible and well preserved even today.

The scholar also reported, in rather colorful terms, the extreme lightness of the mummies, which in fact weigh only 6 or 7 kilos: “Once all the tissues are completely dried, the joints stiffen in such a way that by gripping the legs you can treat the corpse as if it were a pole. An operation that is all the easier to perform due to the singular lightness of these bodies […].”

Among the more curious passages, there’s one in which Maggiorani expresses a veiled hope that these mummies could be studied in order to replicate the technique for funerary purposes — a concern that in those years, given the very recent unification of Italy, was shared by many. I also mention this in my book on the petrifier Paolo Gorini: at the time, there were several experiments in alternative treatments of the remains, essentially aimed at taking away from the Church the dominion over the management of the corpses and, ultimately, over the world of the dead.

In fact, Maggiorani wrote: “Would it be utopian to wish that the conservative conditions of the corpses in Ferentillo were studied with scrupulous diligence to the point of reproducing them completely, for the purpose of preserving the dead from decay? When we read in Plutarch that the Egyptians, in their most solemn banquets, placed the embalmed corpses of the Ancestors around the table, our soft mind shuns the gloomy image of those sepulchral banquets, and we are induced to dismiss this as a barbaric custom. But that the remains of many relatives, instead of being condemned to become a pasture for worms, were, without danger to the living, so effectively preserved as to restore their effigy after a long time, and to spread over them some tears of tender remembrance in days of affliction — it is thought for which no one should be laughed at.

The scientific conclusion reached by Maggiorani’s study was that spontaneous mummification had occurred due to the particular chemical composition of the soil, and to the good ventilation of the crypt guaranteed by the four grated windows, near which — not surprisingly — the 25 mummies had been found.

In reality, however, there is still no definitive and completely exhaustive explanation, because a concomitance of factors often comes into play.
A 1991 study stated: “there are basic conditions that favor dehydration processes (good ventilation of the room, such as in the catacombs; sandy soil; etc.) but these are not sufficient to explain the complex chemical modifications that take place in soft parts of the body. Natural mummification begins with autolytic processes similar to those of normal putrefaction but for reasons not yet fully understood at a certain point the protein substances resist further decomposition. The action of other environmental factors cannot be excluded, such as plant roots invading the body and modifying its chemical conditions, microorganisms, fungi and microelements present in the soil or in the coffin. Natural mummification is probably the result of a combination of all these factors.(2)E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, in Riv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.

Today the Museum of Mummies has been set up in the spaces of the medieval crypt, of which a faded remnant can be seen in some surviving frescoes. Inside glass cases (unfortunately, very poorly lit in order not to alter the delicate condition of the mummies) 24 dried bodies can still be admired: the oldest dates back to the 18th century, the most recent is from the 19th century.

Among the most particular mummies there is a Chinese woman, who died of the plague in the 18th century and whose feet show the characteristic deformation from binding called the “Golden Lotus”, which I talked about in this episode of the web series. But paleopathologists also found some cases of traumatic injuries, a macrocephalus infant, a face tumor and a suspected case of leprosy.

At the bottom of the crypt the skeletonized remains of most of the people who were buried here (about 270 skulls) are arranged in large display cases. However, some of these skulls also show signs of partial mummification. Also exhibited are an ancient, still sealed coffin, and an eagle which was mummified at the end of the 19th century during experiments on the chemical properties of the burial ground.

As anyone who follows my work knows, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which humanity has tried to preserve the likeness of their loved ones; and while I was looking with wonder at these dried bodies, the thought that went through me was exactly the same that opens the report by Maggiorani, which I quote here in closing:

The respect every cultured nation has shown for the deceased, the vanity of the Powerful wishing to free the bodies of their ancestors from the disgusting consequences of death, and the communal desire to keep the dear remains of the relatives uncorrupted, have always suggested artifices suitable to subtract this organic part of us from the empire of chemical laws that condemn it to decay. But while man by one means or another tries to achieve this goal, Nature, either alone or with a few aids from human craft, sometimes reaches it completely.

Here is the official website of the Museum of the Mummies of Ferentillo. The mummies are currently being studied by Dr. Dario Piombino-Mascali (University of Vilnius), who also wrote the preface of my volume on the mummies of the Catacombs of Palermo.

Note

Note
1 C. Maggiorani, Sulle Mummie di Ferentillo: notizie raccolte dal prof. C. Maggiorani: accompagnate dall’analisi chimica della terra di quel Cimitero istituita dal Chimico Farmacista signor Vincenzo Latini, in Atti dell’Accademia Pontificia de’ Nuovi Lincei, Vol XV 1861-62, Roma 1862.
2 E. Fulcheri, P. Baracchini, C. Crestani, A. Drusini, Studio preliminare delle mummie naturali di Ferentillo. Esame istologico e immunoistochimico della cute, in Riv. It. Med. Leg. XIII, 1991.

The Smell of Death: Interview with Nuri McBride

The field of death studies is fascinating for many reasons, but what excites me is how multifaceted and diverse it is — a true mirror of all the issues that also affect life.
In fact it’s obvious, when you think about it, that such a universal event should fall in one way or another into every area of academic study: among the many scholars I have known over the years, there are those who study death in relation to education, to politics, end-of-life ethics, psychology, art history, anthropology, archeology, gender, discrimination, entertainment, and so on.

Even knowing the richness of this branch of studies, I was nonetheless struck when I first met Nuri McBride in Winchester in 2017, as part of the Death & the Maiden conference, because her field of research is something I could never have even imagined.

Nuri is a perfumer by profession, and from an academic point of view she studies the history of aromas and their relevance within cyclical or transitional rites. Her Death/Scent project explores the relationship between death rituals, smells and perfumes: founded in 2016, the website is a treasure trove of surprising information that testifies to how much the olfactory dimension is often overlooked when examining the declinations of a certain culture.

Some examples of covered topics? Osmogenesis, or the supernatural aromas emanating from the bodies of the saints; rebozo de luto, the Mexican mourning shawl carrying an unmistakable scent which fades over time but never completely disappears, just like the pain of loss; the importance of essences in Egyptian embalming; the role of smell in the philosophical debate on the erotic and “bestial” nature of human beings, and its effects on women — good girl perfumes vs. prostitute perfumes.

Another ingredient of her approach is the constant focus on human and workers’ rights, on class disparities, on power equity and inclusiveness, on issues relating to colonialism. These concerns, as you will see by reading below, are related to the life experiences that Nuri has chosen; her entire path, from her career in the resettlement of refugees and torture victims to her joining a Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), is intertwined with the activity of olfactory cultural education, making her voice one of the most acute, sensitive and original in circulation.

Some time ago Nuri interviewed me for her Aromatica De Profundis newsletter; since her questions are of rare intelligence, it ended up being one of the most beautiful and intense chats of my whole career (here it is). So I thought I’d ask her to return the favor, and tell us something about her life and her very special research.

It is understood that those three or four lines in a speaker’s bio are always an approximation, a summary that cannot really contain the complexity of a person’s experiences. But I remember the first time I looked at your bio I had to go back and double check: I was astonished and in admiration, because I felt like I was reading ten lives in one – and what’s more, all of them were light years away from my experience.

For example, you spent twelve years in Kenya, Thailand, Israel and the United States working on the resettlement of refugees. What impact did that long experience have on your way of seeing the world?

Oh, thank you, that is so kind to say. Believe me, it was far less glamourous than it might sound.
My time working in refugee resettlement and torture treatment shaped me in many ways. I walked into my first job a Pollyanna that believed in the power of the law to fix things. I walked out of my last one partly deaf, with a limp, and a complete distrust in the current international system to preserve human rights.

That sounds very cynical, and it is, but it’s the truth. The system around refugee aid is filled with well-meaning and hardworking people that believe in the mission, but the system isn’t designed actually to help refugees in real and tangible ways. It is intended to contain them. Keep them alive, sure, but keep them out of developed economies as much as possible. We warehouse them in middle-income countries that can’t physically stop them from crossing the frontiers but can relegate them to camps for decades.

That’s why in places like Kenya and Thailand, we see generations of refugees born and living their whole lives essentially in prison. They can’t go home, only 0.05% will be resettled in the West, and they are blocked from assimilating into the local community. They are caught endlessly in No Man’s Land.

You can have the best intentions to help people but end up part of a system of harm. I quit the day I felt I was doing more harm than good for my clients.

I still believe in people, though. People are what makes the difference. My clients were some of the most resilient people on the planet. I saw such grace and generosity from folks that had so little themselves but gave freely to others. Despite it all, I still believe that our natural inclination is towards taking care of each other.

This work also took away the veneer of stability I thought existed. No one sees a blue tent in their future. One of my early co-workers, a former refugee, told me the story of her flight from Yugoslavia when she was a kid. She was sent home early from school one day, and as she opened the door, her father picked her up and just started running. That was it. She never returned. Your life can change instantly, and most of us are not as safe as we think. Push the cards of fate a little one way or the other, and any of us could end up as one of the invisible people, whether becoming a refugee or just falling through the cracks of your own society.

So, I keep three passports even though it’s an absolute pain. I keep a jump bag in my closet. I drill my family on rally points and registering with the Red Cross. That way, should a disaster happen and we get separated, I can find them. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do any of those things without my time in aid work.

I imagine becoming a Metaheret [traditional Jewish figure charged with ritually washing and preparing the dead, as well as assisting in funeral preparation and mourning] was another crucial step for you. What prompted you to take this path?

Choosing to join the Chevra was a way of dealing with the guilt of leaving refugee services actually. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I felt I had let many people down.

I had family and friends that were Metaherim, and they thought I would be good at it, so they asked me to join. I took to it reasonably well. I think we all have our callings, and this one was mine. Selfishly, it has been very healing to be of service.

In the death-positive community, it’s often said that over the last century there’s been a ‘social removal of death’, and one of the causes is usually identified in the secularization of society, in the absence of specific rituals that could bring mourning back into a known and accepted dimension. In this view, the absence of rites is believed to parcel out the experience of death, by unloading the burden of mourning on the individual; grief therefore can become unbearable as it is no longer shared with the community.

All these ideas are actually quite questionable – and in fact they have been criticized by serious scholars, who consider them groundless and even, in some cases, vaguely reactionary (as they’re not very far from the narratives that call for a return to a golden tradition or a mythicized past).

Your work as Metaheret is part of a ‘rule’, within an Orthodoxy that is however alive and well; in your experience inside a Chevra, how does modernity interact with the traditional aspect?

I share many of those same critiques of death-positive programming. However, I would say that there is a hyper-focus in death-positive spaces on postmodern lifestyle fulfilment through neoliberal individualization.

That is to say that death-positivity creates an environment where followers feel they will obtain some kind of benefit if they, as individuals, go out of their way to arrange and buy the perfect funeral/ritual that reflects their values and personality. It is implied that if they do this, they will achieve some type of peace or salience that would be denied to them otherwise. There is a massive focus on the aesthetics of dissent from Western commercial death, but no real challenge to the system of for-profit deathcare.

Surprisingly this individualization is often given credence by dressing it as community and postmodern ritual. However, DP doesn’t really deliver on these fronts. The onus is still on the individual to educate themselves, arrange everything, hire professionals or do the work. It puts more burden on the person, not less.

Nor do I see many in these spaces promoting any fundamental modality changes that would serve the greater good of the general public. These are things like protocols to improve conditions when dying in hospitals, developing accessible community resources and aid, or universal deathcare. It’s not that these things aren’t happening. These are all things we fought for and won in Israel for instance. They are just rarely being discussed in DP spaces.

I engaged with death-positivity in the early days, hoping to help them gain access to the vast political and social activism that has allowed traditional Jewish deathcare to thrive worldwide, even under extremely hostile conditions. There are many things to be learned that can be adapted to all kinds of communities. Instead I got met with a lot of people more interested in selling stuff than in community work.

If you want to say this is a progressive community movement, then the focus needs to be on universal harm reduction, not hocking mushroom suits and wicker caskets with the middle-class fantasy that everyone will be able to have these lovely bespoke deaths at home.

I often get offended by how Jewish Death is presented in these spaces. While DeathPositivity/Green Death adopts a similar aesthetic to traditional community care, their actions are diametrically opposed to the foundations of Jewish death practices, which are inherently anti-Capitalist. It is a sin in Judaism to profit from the dead!

Jewish death practices have changed over time and need to be adaptive to the community and the environment. So even though modern Jewish burial is built on a solid historical and halakhic foundation, it still has to meet the needs of real everyday people. The idea that we just do things based on TRADITION and don’t even know why we do them is inaccurate. We aren’t stuck in the past; we don’t have that luxury.

Instead, we are always trying to align our history with our present. How do we preserve what it means to be us and deal with the problems of modern life in a world that can be very hostile to us? How do we do that without losing ourselves or having our culture become a museum?

There are areas where we can compromise and areas where we can’t, but there isn’t a sense that everything was better in ‘ye olden days’. I’ve never seen a Jew pine after the days when we kept the bones of our dead in ossuaries stored in the walls of our homes. Returning to those older traditions isn’t inherent to Judaism. They won’t make grief any more supportable or make community deathcare any more accessible, so why do it?

You were part of a Haredi community, before moving to a less strict form of Orthodoxy. Was it a traumatic transition? And what is your relationship today with Orthodoxy?

Oh wow, no one has ever asked me this before.
There are several different flavours of what gets called Ultra Orthodoxy. I was Haredi (observers of religious law), but I was never Hasidic (part of the mystical Hasidic Movement). My people are Maskilim (followers of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment Movement).
I know it all looks like a bunch of dudes in funny black hats to the outside, but there are pretty significant differences between them. This is to say, things were easier for me than for others.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If you grew up Hasidic, especially in the Diaspora, you went to Hasidic schools and only spoke Yiddish; leaving the community is very hard. It also depends on your family and support network. The former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel has a secular gay grandson, and he is there in all the family photos alongside the rest of them.

For me…were people disappointed – yes. Did people stop talking to me – some did. Did I hear, “You should have married a nice rabbi, and instead you chose crush an old woman’s dreams”- oh boy, did I ever!

But I just held the line that I’m not changing; their idea of me was what was changing. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still the same person. I am a Jew now, and until the day I die, whether or not I cover my hair as a married woman.
I left, but I’m not gone, if that makes sense. I still take up space in that world whether they like it or not. It is part of my birthright too. Not everyone is happy about that, but oh well. As the kids say these days, they can die mad about it. I still love them, though.

Does the Jewish ceremonial always have a normative approach, made up of laws, of things allowed and forbidden, licit and illicit, in which there is inevitably a right and a wrong way even to die? Or is it something more elastic, which changes over time and situations? More specifically, what do you like about it and what do you think should change?

As I said before, there is always an element of negotiation that makes our path relevant in the modern age. There are areas where we can move on things, but you can’t start negating Torah, then it stops being Judaism and becomes something else. You don’t have to like a commandment, you may not follow a commandment in your own life, but you can’t just strike it off. We were given 613 commandments. That number doesn’t change; how we navigate them does.

Judaism is grounded in the fundamental belief that halakha is normative and binding to the Jewish people, but halakha isn’t just religious jurisprudence. It draws heavily from aggadic and mystic texts, exegetic commentary and the Torah to present not just a ridged legal framework of normative behaviour but a method of inquiry and discourse that defines Jewish life.

The most important learning you do in seminary is with your chavruta (a study partner/group), debating various opinions in the Talmud. Everything is subject to debate, analysis, and discourse. That’s what I love most, I think.

Jacob became Israel after he wrestled an angel. We call the entirety of the Jewish people Israel after him because we want to create an environment where we have the mental strength and acuity to wrestle with angels.

I am fascinated by how much funeral customs are a reflection of how we imagine death. For instance, in a beautiful article about your work as Metaheret, you recounted how carefully you proceed and how many precautions you take in order to respect the deceased person:

Once you are in the care of the Chevra Kadisha we will always use your name, you will always be a person, you will never be an object. […] A three-person Taharah team will work in silence (except for softly whispered prayers), with intense concentration, as they meticulous prepare your body. At the end, they pray for your forgiveness if they have offended you in their preparation.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly offended in my whole life, so I sure hope I won’t became pettish once I’m dead; but asking the deceased for forgiveness means that being dead – what you envision being dead will be like – certainly includes this possibility. As opposed, for instance, to the Buddhist idea that in the moment of death we may get to a pristine awareness and see things as they are, from a broader perspective than the human mind allows, finally free from the Self, from names, forms and cognitive biases (Chönyi bardo); as opposed to the idea of the dead not being there at all (as in the modern secular view).

So I’m curious: do you look at your work more as a way of comforting the living, or the dead themselves?

Both are equally important; it’s mostly about timing. When a person dies, it is my duty to protect them and care for them. After the dead person is buried, all of our attention goes to comforting the mourners.

Jewish culture has a low tolerance for liminal spaces. So every second a dead person is not buried, they are, in a sense, in danger. Until they’re safe in the ground, they are the priority above everything else. And we do treat them as if they were alive. We call them by their names; we tell them what we are doing or what is happening. Someone is always with them until burial. We comfort them, of course. It never even occurred to me not to.

When I said we ask for forgiveness for offending them, I don’t mean petty personal offence. I had an examination table break once, and the body fell on the floor. This is a desecration of the dead. The whole team cried our eyes out. We intellectually knew the body felt no pain, but emotionally we hurt them, we dishonoured them. Our job was to keep them safe in this liminal time, and we failed to protect them.

In atonement, we fasted for 40 days (ate one meal in the evening). It’s the same restitution for dropping a Torah scroll. There is this harrowing moment in the Shabbat service called Hagbah where the open scroll is lifted over the reader’s head. If he drops it, everyone present does the fast. There doesn’t need to be a conscious entity that is offended; a sacred thing has been harmed, and harm requires action to put it right.

I don’t know if any part of us survives after death, but even on the off chance it does, I’d like to know someone is there looking out for me that way.