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.
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.
Let’s move on to your perfume work. How did this passion start?
When I was a girl, I loved to watch my grandmother sit at her vanity table and get ready for the day. It was magical with all her little pots and jars. I nagged my parents for weeks, and for my birthday, they got me a vanity table of my own along with a silver-plated comb and a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Baby Soft is a bright pink perfume that smells like baby powder. It had a creepy “sexy baby” ad campaign when it launched in the 70s, but my parents didn’t know that, it just seemed kid-appropriate. There was no way they would give me makeup, even play makeup, but perfume seemed okay.
I was also secretly obsessed with Miss Piggy. I had a sticker of her looking glamourous with a feathered boa that I hid on the inside of my toy chest. Now armed with my own womanly tools, I would sit there for hours combing my hair into a frizzy mess and spraying myself with this pink concoction, thinking, “I’m like my grandmother AND Miss Piggy now. I’m a WOMAN!”
It’s a silly story, but that’s when I learned the power that scent has to transform the way we feel about ourselves. It’s the only cosmetic you wear for your enjoyment as much as for others. It can be armour when you need it.
I was obsessed from that point out. I started saving my pocket money to buy cheap perfumes from the pharmacy. It became a hobby, but I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I would be doing what I’m doing today. I never saw anyone like me involved in perfume, so it seemed impossible as a career.
When I was a boy, it seemed to me that the sense of the sacred could be found anywhere except in church. I think my main problem was having to be part of a community, an idea I still recoil from; anyway, up to the age of 13 I was induced to go to Mass – not in a very regular way, but with a regular reluctance on my part.
Yet there was one exception (which I am sure you’ve already heard many times): I loved the rare moments when incense was used. Although incensing is, as far as I know, optional during any celebration of Mass, it was used very sporadically, and for this reason to my eyes – and my nose – it was a precious event. There was something deeply mysterious in the gesture of the priest who swung the thurible projecting the smoke towards the altar and the faithful, in those white spirals wreathing for a very brief instant the pages of the Book in a pale puff, in the air of the church saturated with the sweet scent, in the rising mist giving out unreal reflections.
How relevant is the liturgical use of incense or perfumes in the Jewish tradition? Is there any memory for you that binds perfume to the sense of the sacred, and that may have been a stimulus for your research?
There is something lovely about a thurible making its way through a church, isn’t it? I like it too.
Incense offerings used to play a considerable role liturgically during the time of the Temple. However, since the Temple was destroyed, it is forbidden to use any aromatics in a synagogue. A synagogue can never take the place of the Temple, and offerings can only happen at the Temple. You don’t even want to create an allusion to offerings in a shul. However, there is still a yeshiva in Jerusalem that teaches Cohanim to conduct the sacrifices. I guess just in case another temple falls from the Heavens, they will be ready with the showbread.
So for me, sacred smells are very domestic. They are the smells of getting ready for the Shabbat. It is baking bread, roasting chicken, and chraime, a spicy fish stew. It is soap and scenting our clothes over an incense braiser (domestic incense use is fine). It’s the particular waxy smell of Shabbat candles and the way new Borsalino hats smell. I guess it’s the smell of home. That feels sacred to me.
Perhaps due to the fact that we are daily assaulted by pollution and smog, we have sanitized the interior of our homes, purifying them of bad smells. I have a feeling that the latter have become more and more like a real taboo. But is this something that has always existed? Were there forbidden smells in past ages?
There have certainly been smells people didn’t like in the past, but the reality of life, particularly urban life, for most of human history meant you couldn’t avoid them. Then as now, however, you could always tell where the affluent lived in a city by how the air flows. The wealthiest people had and have the sweetest air and best ventilation. The people living next to the garbage dump don’t have the power to keep those olfactory nuisances out of their neighbourhood.
The onset of the Black Death brought the prominence of Miasma Theory and the fear that rotting matter creates smelly gas that could infect your body and rot you from the inside out. This didn’t make malodours taboo like today, but it sure made people paranoid about them.
There were sweet plague preservatives like rose water that were supposed to protect you from miasmata. However, the most popular plague preservatives were acrid like vinegar, turpentine, gun powder, even stale urine. So clearly, folks were still okay with stink as long as it was the right kind of stink.
As far as forbidden, though, those tended to be pleasurable scents. Sumptuary laws often prohibited certain people from wearing or even buying certain aromatics or fragrances. Access to good smells was the only thing ever truly forbidden.
To me, the funniest proof that in modern times there’s a taboo regarding certain smells comes from a master of politically incorrect satire, an artist who throughout his career has systematically broken social prohibitions with sardonic irony and ‘good bad taste’. Of course I’m talking about John Waters, who invented the Odorama technique in 1981 to advertise his film Polyester. At the entrance to the cinema, the spectators were given a postcard with ten plates to scratch in specific points of the film, indicated by a flashing number, in order to smell the scene represented on the screen. The first scent was the harmless and pleasant scent of roses, but then came more annoying odors such as the smell of flatulence, gasoline, skunk, unwashed feet. John Waters declared years later: “I actually got the audience to pay to smell shit!”
If there had been no taboo, Waters could not have broken it with his ‘delicious’ prank. But this experiment also makes me reflect on how neglected the sense of smell is, in favor of other senses, in the artistic field. Not just in cinema, which of course is an eminently visual art, but also in literary descriptions, in contemporary art galleries, in virtual/augmented reality technologies that strive to be more and more ‘immersive’ but often forget the olfactory dimension. Are there artistic or creative examples that go against the trend?
Honestly, I think we are on the cusp of a golden age where scent and the history of the senses are finally being taken seriously in academia. For a good 500-years, the academy has treated scent as this animalistic vestigial sense with little value to modern people. Darwin thought it would eventually be bred out of us altogether. I could write a whole book on Freud’s weird obsession with olfaction and sex.
Yet, the development of sensory history as a field of study has really changed things. I think that it will only develop with time and it is sprouting up all over the world. It is really diffused and exciting.
The artist and perfumer Bharti Lalwani has the project Bagh-e Hind where she is scent-translating Mughal garden-paintings. Dr Caro Verbeek is researching heritage odours and means of cultural preservation for odours. Dr Ishita Dey is studying smell and intimate space in domestic work in India. The new research institute Odeuropa examines how scent plays a role in European cultural heritage. OVR Technology is working on scenting virtual reality. Just last year, the Mauritshuis Museum put on the exhibition Smell the Art: Fleeting — Scents in Colour, which paired 50 17th-century paintings with corresponding fragrances; some of them were beautiful, and some were gross [autopsies included—Ed.]. It was all dictated by the composition of the work.
So it’s coming. It just hasn’t broken through to the mainstream yet.
What would be the advantages of a more widespread olfactory education?
Firstly, every community has a scent culture and heritage; it’s not just the south of France, as lovely as it is. Many aromatic modes were lost in the commercialization of cultural aromatics into the modern perfume trade because they couldn’t be commodified. These elements of culture and heritage deserve examination and exploration by academics and the people who inherited these cultures.
Humans are also not bad smellers. We have incredibly sophisticated and nuanced odour perception. Still, our ability to understand and communicate scent has been stunted by how we’ve trained people to use their olfactory senses. The work being done around smell, memory, and Alzheimer’s is really incredible for instance. These skills are valuable by themselves, but they also improve cognition and overall brain health.
You recently published a series of extraordinary essays on the relationship between perfumes and the plague (The Scented History of the Plague). The comparison with the reality of the last two years is inevitable, including masks, paranoia, fear of breathing close to other people. How has the pandemic changed, or how could it change, our relationship with scent?
You know I had that series planned since the start of Death/Scent. I just didn’t expect it to launch right in the middle of a real-life pandemic.
I think the most significant change will be around anosmia (the loss/inability to smell). We all have experienced impaired smelling when suffering from a head cold. Still, I don’t think the average person understood what the total loss of their olfactory ability meant until this pandemic. I can’t think of another condition that has assaulted the olfactory bulb the way Covid-19 has. Millions of people have experienced temporary anosmia, and hundreds of thousands will have long term impairment.
Some people are born anosmic, and they seem to do fine, but when a scented person loses their ability to smell, it can be devastating. You lose contact with the world. Information and pleasures you didn’t even understand you were experiencing are gone. Food becomes flavourless, desire for sex decreases, even the ability to perceive danger decreases. Many people suffer a depressive episode after losing their ability to smell.
I think we will see a lot more research focusing on anosmia and smell training for those suffering from olfactory impairment. I think the fear of losing our sense of smell and what that could imply will be with us for a long time.
The English term ‘bonehouse’, referring to an ossuary or charnel where large quantities of exhumed skeletal remains are stacked and displayed, derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘beinhaus’. In its original use, this word referred to the human body rather than any structure as the house of bones. With the bones of the living inhabiting bodies and the bones of the dead inhabiting charnel houses, distinctions between life and death remain clear and accommodated. However, the emergence of animal life within the bones of the dead offers one further twist, repurposing bones as houses in and of themselves.
Reports of birds nesting in human skulls were surprisingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the attention of Victorian ornithologists and curiosity-seekers alike. Numerous reports survive through popular books and magazines of the period, including wrens nesting in a skull left outside to whiten by an anatomy student (Blanchan 1907), as well as one uncovered during building works at Hockwold Hall, Norfolk, during the 1870s (Chilvers 1877). Following its discovery, the Hockwold skull was hung from a nail on a potting shed wall by a local man, who was later surprised to find that a wren seen flying in and out of it had laid four or five eggs within.
Also in Norfolk, earlier in the century, birds were found nesting in the exposed skeletal remains of a local murderer. Following execution, the body was left to rot in a gibbet suspended outside the village of Wereham, serving as a grizzly warning to others who might threaten local lives. Around five years later, in 1810 or thereabouts, a child climbed the scaffold and discovered several blue-tits living within the skull (Stevenson 1876).
Though the Wereham gibbet is no longer extant, the surviving Rye gibbet shows how a skull would be retained. (Postcard. Author’s collection.)
Further accounts pepper books both historic and recent. When a Saxon cemetery was excavated at Saffron Walden during the 1870s, a Redstart raised four children in the skull of an exposed skeleton (Travis 1876). More recently, in an expedition to Cape Clear Island, Ireland, the ornithologist Ronald M. Lockley discovered a robin’s nest inside a skull within a ruined chapel, which had presumably tumbled from an old stone grave within the walls (Lockley 1983).
FIG 2: Illustration of a bird’s nest in a human skull, c.1906.
Skulls do not form the only morbid homes of nesting birds, with the Chinese Hoopoe, or coffin-bird, so named on account of its habit of nesting in caskets which were frequently left above-ground in 19th century China. Furthermore, the Arctic-dwelling Snow Bunting has been rumoured to seek shelter in the chest cavities of those unfortunate enough to die on the tundra (Dixon 1902). While nooks and crannies in modern cemeteries also provide helpful shelter in mortuary environments (Smith/Minor 2019), these nesting sites are not driven by any macabre mechanism. Rather, they express the versatile ability of birds to seek shelter wherever it might be conveniently found.
Birds nesting in locations as mundane as flowerpots and old boots (Kearton 1895), through to desiccated animal carcasses, including those of other birds (Armstrong 1955), demonstrate the indifferent resourcefulness of our feathered friends. It is therefore unsurprising that when skulls of the dead have been left exposed to the elements, they have occasionally provided shelter in much the same way as any other convenient object might. As charnels and ossuaries have historically accommodated large quantities of such remains, from time to time they have offered several such convenient homes for nesting birds.
Within England, two charnel collections remain extant. The first of these, at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent, houses hundreds of skulls including one which contains a bird’s nest. The nest is rumoured to have been built in the mid-20th century after the church’s windows were shattered by a bomb which fell nearby in the Second World War, allowing birds to enter the structure (Caroline 2015).
FIG 3: The bird’s nest skull in St. Leonard’s, Hythe.
England’s second accessible charnel collection is located in the crypt of Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. Newspapers in 1912 reported the discovery a nest in a skull there, which was believed to have been made by a bird who snuck into the crypt through a hole in a ventilator (Northampton Mercury 12.7.12). However, a lack of references in more recent sources suggest that the nest has not survived to the present day.
In Austria, the ossuary of Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau contains the remains of local people as well as soldiers who died during the 1805 Battle of Dürenstein (Engelbrecht). Several skulls bear bullet holes attesting death by conflict, while one with a large portion missing from its vault is displayed side-on to reveal the bird’s nest that it contains.
FIG 4: Nest skull at the Filialkirche St. Michael in der Wachau.
Further examples exist in the Breton region of North-Western France, where ossuaries were common until hygienic and cultural changes in the 19th and 20th centuries led to most of them being emptied. The ossuary of l’Église Saint-Grégoire in Lanrivain is one where bones still remain, with one skull there accommodating a nest.
FIG 5: Nest skull in Lanrivain Ossuary, Brittany.
A further example with a difference can be found in the ossuary of l’Église Saint-Fiacre. Within Breton ossuary practices, skulls were frequently retained separately from other remains in biographically inscribed boxes which recorded details of the deceased such as names and dates alongside invocations of prayer (Coughlin 2016). Boxes possessed viewing apertures which exposed the remains, as well as pitched roofs which led to 19th century travellers describing them as resembling dog kennels. However, one at Saint-Fiacre is decidedly distant from these canine comparisons, having been adopted and transformed into the uncanniest of birdhouses.
Birds are not the only animals to have found happy homes among charnel remains. In her book ‘A Tour of the Bones’, Denise Inge noted a mouse living in the ossuary of Hallstatt, Austria. More recently, rat bones in the ossuary of Gdańsk, Poland, have been used to shed new light on the dispersal of plague in medieval Europe (Morozova et al 2020). Plants as well as animals have their own established charnel histories too, with moss removed from human skulls finding historic employment within folk medicine as a cure for conditions of the head such as seizures and nosebleeds (Gerard 1636).
Fig 7: Medical moss on a human skull in the late 17th century.
While cemeteries have attracted increased attention in recent times as urban green spaces which accommodate and facilitate nature within settlements (Quinton/Duinker 2018), the study of charnel houses as ecosystems remains a further promising project which is yet to be conducted.
As most instances of birds nesting in ossuary skulls which have been described here were discovered accidentally during the course of broader research, it is inevitable that the present list remains incomplete. It is hoped that by bringing such examples together in one place, this strange phenomenon might receive recognition for the curiosity that it is, and that more instances might be noticed and added to the list. While it is widely seen that life often finds compelling ways to perpetuate among environments of the dead, nesting birds in ossuary skulls provide a particularly uncanny example – from bodies as the houses of bones, to bones as the houses of bodies.
Thomas J. Farrow (mail, Twitter) holds an MA in the Archaeology of Death and Memory from the University of Chester, UK. A previous article on the history of charnelling in England may be found here (Farrow 2020), while a paper addressing folk medical and magical uses of skull moss and ossuary remains is forthcoming in the Spring 2021 issue of The Enquiring Eye.
Today I’d like to introduce you to one truly extraordinary project, in which I am honored to have participated. This is Totentanz, created by engraver and paper maker Andrea De Simeis.
One of the depictions of death that, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, enjoyed greater fortune is the so-called Triumph of Death.
I talked about it on YouTube in my video Dancing with death: the Black Queen who, armed with a scythe, crushes everyone under the wheels of her chariot – peasants, popes, rulers – was not just a pictorial representation, but a concrete part of the festivities of Carnival. In fact, the Triumph also paraded among the carnival floats, surrounded by people masked as skeletons who mocked the spectators by dancing and singing poems centered on memento mori.
This is the tradition that Andrea De Simeis drew on to invent his modern Triumph of Death, an actual musical chariot that will parade across Italy and, virus permitting, across Europe, bringing joy and poetry but at the same time reminding us of our finiteness.
Totentanz (German for “danse macabre”) is a large wooden music box on wheels; at the turn of the crank, the machine plays a dies irae and three cylinders start turning, thus rotating eighteen original illustrations.
The music box, at the end of its delicate motif, draws a booklet for its operator: an illustrated plaquette with a short dialogue, a maxim, an aphorism, a poem.
Each precious booklet is produced in only eleven copies; the illustrations and texts are printed on hand-laid paper in pure cotton cellulose, hemp and spontaneous fig from the Mediterranean vegetation.
The Italian authors who accepted the invitation to write these short texts are many and prestigious; you can discover some of them on the Facebook page of the project.
Among these, I too tried my hand at a poem to accompany the illustration entitled “The Hanged Man”. It is my small tribute to François Villon and his Ballade des pendus.
Clicca per ingrandire
The proceeds from these publications will fund the Totentanz music box’s trip from city to city, accompanied at each stage by performances by a musician or actor who will interpret the theme of the memento mori. Totentanz‘s initiatives are not for profit, but only serve to finance this tour.
If the initiative fascinates you, you can support it in many ways.
In the promotional video below you can see the fantastic machine in action; below is a 3D rendering by visual artist Giacomo Merchich.
Welcome to the collection of online resources designed to provide you with lots of nice conversation starters. We will talk about people who died badly, about menstruation, voodoo rites, sexually arousing vegetables and the fact that reality does not exist.
Here’s my idea for a post-apocalyptic TV series with a Ballardian flavor.
On Earth, after the ecological catastrophe, only a few hundred inhabitants remain. The survivors are divided into two warring factions: on the one hand the descendants of rich capitalists, called “The Travises”, on the other the last representatives of what was once the middle class, who call themselves “The Talbots”. (The poorest, with no means to protect themselves, were the first to become extinct.) Natural resources are limited, so the two tribes have built two neighboring cities, in constant war tension.
The cold war between the Travises and the Talbots, which has lasted for decades, is about to reach breaking point with the arrival of one hallucinated stranger, a sandstorm survivor, who claims to have seen an immense oasis across the desert where men have mutated into cold-blooded hybrids…
Ok, I only got this far with the story. But the great thing is that you don’t even have to build the sets, because the whole thing can be shot on location.
Here is the Talbots citadel:
And this instead is the city of the Travises, composed solely of small castles meant to underline their ancient economic superiority:
These two alienating places are Pardis, near Tehran, and the ghost village of Burji Al Babas in Turkey.
But wait, I’ve got another fabulous concept for a series ready here! An exorcist priest, who is an occultist and paranormal investigator in the 1940s, builds a wunderkammer in a small town in the Sienese Chianti (article in Italian only). Netflix should definitely hire me on the spot. (Thanks, Paolo!)
Since we talked about doomsday scenarios, which animal has the best chance of surviving a nuclear holocaust? Probably a cockroach. Why? Well, for starters, that little rascal can go on quietly for weeks after being beheaded.
Ok, we have arrived at our philosophy moment.
Our brain, trapped in the skull, creates a representation of things based on perception, and we all live in that “map” derived from mere stimuli.
“There’s no sound out there. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it creates changes in air pressure and vibrations in the ground. The crash is an effect that happens in the brain. When you stub your toe and feel pain throbbing out of it, that, too, is an illusion. That pain is not in your toe, but in your brain. There’s no color out there either. Atoms are colorless.”
The quote comes from this article which is a short but clear introduction to the hallucinatory nature of reality.
The problem has long been discussed by the best thinkers, but in the end one might ask: does it matter whether the pain is in my finger, in my brain, or in a hypothetical alien software simulating the universe? Bumping your foot hurts as hell anyway.
At least this is my interpretation of the famous anecdote starring Samuel Johnson: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley‘s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’ ”
(This is to say that as a young man I was intrigued by what reality really was, “out there”, but now I think more and more often about Samuel Johnson’s aching little finger.)
The image above hides a sad and macabre story now forgotten. Alessandro Calzolaro has investigated the “prisoner of Mondovi” in this article, in Italian only. (Thanks, Storvandre!)
The medieval village of Fabbriche di Careggine in Italy has been lying on the bottom of an artificial lake since the 1950s. The basin was emptied only 4 times for maintenance, the last one in 1994. But in 2021 the submerged village could finally resurface for good, to become a tourist attraction and a museum site dedicated to “raising awareness and cultural growth on the subject of clean and renewable energy“.
If you understand Italian, Mariano Tomatis’ web series Mesmer in pillole is one of the most beautiful things to have happened in the last year and a half. After reaching the number of 200 published videos, our inimitable Wonder Injector has made an alphabetic selection of the most surprising episodes.
These are the “ghosts” of Castello di Vezio, Lake Como, Italy. They renew these statues every year: you can volunteer to model and be “encased” in chak. You’ll eventually be let out ?, but the hollow statue stays there for the following year. pic.twitter.com/MdfA2zqW1K
And here is an interesting esoteric, alchemical and intiatic reading of David Lynch’s cinema (Italian only).
London, 1876. A carpenter with money problems rents an apartment, then one evening he is seen returning home with two large wooden planks and a double blade similar to those used to tan leather. But the neighbors, as per tradition, don’t pay attention to it. The Police Illustrated News tells the epilogue as follows:
“On Monday his suicide was discovered his head having been cut off by a guillotine. The two planks had been used as uprights at the top of which the knife had been placed. Grooves had been cut in the inner side of the planks for the knife to run easily and two heavy stones were bound to the upper side of the knife to give it weight. By means of the pulley he had drawn up the knife and let it fall on his throat, the head being cut clean off.“
And we close with one of the most incredible psychiatric reports ever: the case, documented in 2005, of a man who suffered simultaneously from Cotard syndrome (the delusion of being dead) and clinical lycanthropy.
Although the condition of this unfortunate individual is anything but comical, the results of the report stand out as an unsurpassed masterpiece of medical surrealism:
“A patient meeting DSM-IV criteria for bipolar mood disorder, mixed type with psychotic feature had the delusion of being transformed into a dog. He also deluded that he was dead. He was restless and had a serious sense of guilt about his previous sexual contact with a sheep.“
If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.
The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.
Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.
The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.
His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.
The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.
And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.
This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.
It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.
Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?
To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.
November 8, 1909, Somerville Opera House, New Jersey.
Professor Arthur Everton was a man of gentle manners, with a suave voice and a nice pair of black mustaches. Hypnotism was his early passion, and after a period spent moving pianos he had recently returned to the limelight. But he hadn’t lost his shine: he was dominating the scene with grace and security.
His evening show was coming to an end; until that moment the hypnotist had amused the audience by forcing his subjects to fish onstage with an invisible fishing line, and other such amenities. But now he announced the grand finale.
There was electricity in the room as his magnetic eyes scrutinized the audience intensely, one row at a time, searching for the subject of his next experiment. And the public, as always in these cases, was torn.
There were some, among the spectators and the spectators, who timidly lowered their eyes for fear of being called on stage, having no intention of becoming the laughing stock. Others, on the other hand, secretly hoped to be chosen: either they thought they were lucid enough to challenge the Professor, to resist the hypnotist’s intense willpower… or they were unconsciously enticed by the idea of losing control for a few minutes, just for fun, with no major consequences.
Finally, a man raised his hand.
“Ah, we have a volunteer!”, shouted Everton.
35-year-old Robert Simpson, a tall, bulky man, climbed on stage. Professor Everton let the audience give a round of applause to this brave stranger, and then proceeded to induce a cataleptic state. According to the New York Times
he made a few passes, told Simpson to be rigid, and he was. Everton then had attendants lay the body on two chairs, the head resting on one and the feet on the other, and stepped up on the subject’s stomach and then down again. Two attendants, acting under his orders, lifted Simpson to a standing posture, and Everton, clapping his hands, cried out ‘Relax!’ Simpson’s body softened so suddenly that it slipped out of the hands of the attendants to the floor, his head striking one of the chairs as he slid down.
Everyone immediately understood, just by looking at the assistants’ astonished faces, that this was no set-up. Professor Everton — who was actually not a real professor — began panicking at this point. He and his collaborators tried to awaken the unfortunate man from the trance, shaking him in every way, but the man did not respond to any stimulus.
Everton, ever more hysterical, managed to squeak out a cry for help asking if there were any doctors in the room. Three physicians, who had been invited to the show by the theater manager, came to the rescue; but even their attempts to revive Simpson were unsuccessful. Dr. W. H. Long, county physician, looked up from the body and stared seriously at the hypnotist.
“This one’s gone,” he hissed.
“No, he’s still in a trance,” Everton replied, and began clapping his hands near Simpson’s ears, and shaking the man’s corpse.
When the police showed up, Professor Everton was still intent on trying to awaken his volunteer. The cops arrested him immediately on charges of manslaughter.
As they carried him out of the Opera House, handcuffed, his eyes no longer seemed so magnetic, but only terrified.
Part II: Lazarus, Come Forth
The next day, Robert Simpson’s lifeless body lay under a black shroud in Somerville’s hospital morgue, awaiting the autopsy.
Suddenly the door opened and four men entered the mortuary. Three of them were doctors.
The fourth approached the corpse and uncoverd it. Breathing deeply, he first touched the dead man’s cheeks; then he brought his head close to Simpson’s chest as if to auscultate him. No heartbeat. Finally he gently placed three fingers on the cold skin over the breastbone, put his lips to the dead man’s ear and began to speak.
“Listen, Bob, your heart action is strong, Bob, your heart begins to beat.”
Then he suddenly started screaming, “BOB, DO YOU HEAR ME?”
The three doctors exchanged a puzzled look.
The man’s voice resumed whispering: “Bob, your heart is starting …”
Simpson, lying on the table, did not move.
This strange scene continued for quite a while, until the impatient doctors decided the farce had lasted too long.
“Mr. Davenport, I’d say that’s enough.”
“But we’re almost there…”
Part III: Death Is Not The End
The man trying to resurrect the dead was named William E. Davenport, and was a friend of Professor Everton (they were both from Newark). Davenport officially held the office of secretary for the mayor, but also dabbled in hypnotism and mesmerism.
The self-proclaimed ‘Professor’, “unnerved and shaken“, remained in prison awaiting the decision of the grand jury. Everton claimed — and perhaps he desperately wanted to convince himself — that he had thrown his subject into a trance so deep as to resemble a state of apparent death. He was so sure Simpson was still in catalepsy, that he had managed to convince authorities to grant him that bizarre attempt at hypnotic resuscitation. Being confined to his cell, he had sent his friend Davenport to the morgue instead.
Unfortunately the latter (maybe because he was just an amateur?) had failed to awaken the dead. For a brief moment there was talk of summoning a third hypnotist from New York to try and bring the victim back to life, but nothing was done.
Thus it remained unclear whether Simpson had died from the weight he suffered while in a cataleptic state, as the hypnotist was climbing on his stomach, or if the whole incident was just a tragic coincidence.
The autopsy put an end to the suspense: Simpson had died of an aortic rupture, and according to the doctors he had likely been suffering from that silent aneurysm for a long time. There was no conclusive evidence that the stress endured during the hypnotism was the actual cause of death, which was eventually ruled out as natural.
Everton, now in full nervous breakdown in his cell, even after the autopsy kept claiming that Simpson was still alive. He was released on bail, and three weeks later the grand jury decided not to indict him.
It was the end of a nightmare for Professor Everton, who retired from the scenes, and the closure of a case that had kept newspaper readers with bated breath — and especially other hypnotists. After all, this could have happened to any of them.
But hypnotists were not damaged by this clamor, on the contrary; they acquired an even more sinister and provocative charm. And they continued, as they did before, to challenge each other with increasingly spectacular performances.
As early as November 11, just three days after Everton’s unfortunate act, a New York Times headline reported:
EVERTON’S RIVAL TRIUMPHS: Somerville’s Other Hypnotist Puts THREE Men on His Subject’s Chest.