In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the scientist who drugged spiders; a Ticuna ritual mask; the secret hidden in a bishop’s coffin.
Produced in collaboration with the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.
In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar: the scientist who drugged spiders; a Ticuna ritual mask; the secret hidden in a bishop’s coffin.
Produced in collaboration with the Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia.
Directed & animated by Francesco Erba.
William Lanne, considered Tasmania’s last “full-blood” Aboriginal, was born in Coal River around 1835. At the age of seven, he and his family were transferred to Flinders Island‘s Aboriginal settlement; when he was twelve, the surviving Aboriginal people (a group of about 40) were moved to Oyster Cove, 56 kilometers south of Hobart. Here, in 1847, William entered Queen’s Orphan Asylum. It is precisely at Oyster Cove that, apart from his journeys at sea, Lanne spent all of her life.
The Aboriginals were often employed aboard whaling boats, assigned to the mast because of their excellent sight. William Lanne, on the account of a cheerful spirit, became popular among fellow sailors as “King Billy” and despite this royal nickname, he led an anonymous existence, divided between the hard days at sea and drinking at the pub with his friends.
In February 1869, after a long trip aboard the Runnymede, William returned unhealthy. He spent his last wages in beer and rum at the local tavern, a hangout for prostitutes and whalers, and after a week he fell ill with choleric diarrhea. On March 3rd he died while getting dressed for the hospital.
His body was brought to the General Hospital by order of Dr. Crowther. And here the trouble began, because to many people William Lanne’s body looked incredibly tempting.
In the 19th century, comparative anatomy was among the hottest themes within the scientific community. The study of the shape of the skull, in particular, was of paramount importance not so much on a medical level as in the broader context of the theory of races.
Through craniometric and phrenological measurements, and by comparing various physical characteristics, racial classifications were compiled: for example, it was claimed that one race was equipped with a heavier brain than the other, an irrefutable proof of greater intelligence; the physiognomic peculiarities of a race proved its proximity to monkeys, thus ranking it further down the racial scale; a robust constitution was deemed to increase the chances of survival, and so on. No need to wonder who occupied the peak of evolution, in these charts created by white men.
If the Europeans were the most suitable for survival, then it was all too clear that the Aboriginal Tasmanians (who were often confined to the bottom ranks of these charts) would soon be extinct just like dodos and dinosaurs. Any violence or abuse was therefore justified by the inevitable, “natural” white supremacy.
To prove these theories, ethnologists, anatomists and archaeologists were constantly looking for prime examples of skulls. Aboriginal human remains, however, were very scarce and therefore among the most requested.
This was the reason why, as soon as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian was dead, a war broke out to decide who would win his skeleton: William Lanne received more attention after his death than he ever had while he was alive.
Right from the start two opposing factions formed around the issue of his remains.
On one side was Dr. William Crowther, the doctor who had pronounced him dead. For a long time he had been desperately searching for an Aboriginal skeleton to send to the curator of London’s Hunterian Museum. He claimed that this gift would benefit relationships betweeen Tasmania and the British Empire, but in all evidence his true intent was to curry favour with the prestigious Royal College of Surgeons.
On the opposite front, the most powerful scientific society of Tasmania, the Royal Society, claimed that the precious remains were a national heritage and should remain in the Society’s own museum.
Disguised under an alleged scientific relevance, this was actually a political struggle.
The premier Richard Dry immediately realized this, being called to decide on the delicate matter: his move was initially favorable to the Royal Society, perhaps because it had strict ties to his government, or perhaps because Dry had had some pretty rough political divergences with Crowther in the past.
Anyways, it was established that the body would remain in Tasmania; but Dry, being a fervent Christian, decided that the last Aboriginal would need, first of all, to be granted a proper funeral. Well aware of Crowther’s impatience to get his hands on the skeleton, he ordered the new head of the hospital, Dr. George Stockell, to prevent anything happening to the body.
The following day Stockell and Crowther met on the street and they immediately went into a dispute; Crowther claimed to have a right on the body, and Stockell replied he had received clear orders to protect Lanne’s corpse.
When surprisingly Crowther invited him to dinner at 8pm, Stockell must have naively thought it was an attempt to reconcile. Upon showing up at Crowther’s at the agreed time, however, he discovered that the doctor was absent: he found his wife instead, who welcomed him into their home and who seemed particularly loquacious, and “kept him talking“…
Meanwhile Crowther had to act quickly with the favor of twilight.
Assisted by his son, he entered the hospital and headed for the morgue. There he focused on the body of an elderly white gentleman: he beheaded the old man, and swiftly peeled his head to get hold of his skull. He then moved to the adjoining room, where William Lanne’s body was laying.
Crowther made an incision down the side of Lanne’s face, behind his right ear; removing the skin off the face and forcing his hands underneath, he extracted the Aboriginal’s skull and replaced it with the one he had just taken from the other corpse.
He then stitched up Lanne’s face, hoping no one would notice the difference, and disappeared into the night with his precious loot.
Stockell remained with Crowther’s wife until 9pm, when he eventually sensed something was wrong and returned to the hospital. Despite Crowther’s precautions, it did not take Stockell very long before he figured out what had just happened.
Instead of alerting the authorities, Stockell immediately notified the secretary of the Royal Society regarding the mutilations carried out on the corpse. After a brief consultation with other society members, it was deemed imperative to secure the most important parts of the body before Crowther attempted to return for more.
Therefore Lanne’s feet and hands were cut off and hidden in the Royal Society museum.
The funeral took place on the scheduled day, Saturday 6 March. An unexpectedly large crowd gathered to salute King Billy, the last true Aboriginal: there were mainly sailors, including the Captain of the Runnymede who had payed for the funeral, and several Tasmanian natives.
However, rumors began to spread of a horrific mutilation suffered by Lanne’s corpse, and Dry was asked to exhume the body for verification. The premier, waiting to open the official investigation, ordered the grave be guarded by two police agents until Monday.
But early on Sunday it was discovered that the burial place had been devastated: the coffin lay exposed on loose earth. There was blood all around, and Lanne’s body was gone. The skull of the old man, the one that had been substituted inside the corpse, had been discarded by the graverobbers and thrown next to the grave.
Meanwhile, an increasingly furious Crowther was far from giving up, especially now that he’d seen the missing parts of “his” Aboriginal stolen that way.
On Monday afternoon he broke into the hospital with a group of supporters. When Stockell commanded him to leave, Crowther responded by hammering in a panel of one of the wards and forcing the morgue door.
Inside the scene was gruesome: on the dissecting table there were pieces of meat and bloody fat masses. Lanne had been deboned.
Not finding the coveted skeleton, Crowther and his mob left the hospital.
The investigation led to an unfavorable result especially for Crowther, who was suspended from the medical profession, while his son saw his permission to study at the hospital revoked. As for the Royal Society, although Stockell admitted he had cut the hands and feet off the corpse, it was felt that there was not sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Even if nothing came out of the investigation, this terrible episode shook the public opinion for more than one reason.
On the one hand, events had uncovered the rotten reality of scientific and state institutions.
William Lanne’s body had been profaned – likewise, that of a white man had been desecrated.
The doctors had been proven to be abject and unscrupulous – and so had the cops, who were evidently bribed into leaving their post guarding the grave.
Hospital security measures had proved to be laughable – the same was true of St. David’s, the largest urban cemetery in the city.
The government’s actions had been far from impartial or decisive – but the behavior of the Royal Society had been equally obscure and reprehensible.
As a newspaper summed it up, the incident had shown that “the common people have a better appreciation of decency and propriety than such of the so-called upper classes and men of education“.
But the second reason for indignation was that the last Aboriginal had been treated as meat in a slaughterhouse.
A horrendous act, but sadly in line with the decimation of Tasmanian natives in what has been called a full-on genocide: in little more than seventy years since the first settlers arrived, virtually the entire population of the island had been wiped out. Just like his land and his people before him, William Lanne had been avidly divided among whites – who were seeking to demonstrate his racial inferiority.
Even with all the racist rhetoric of the time, it was hard not to feel guilty. When someone proposed to erect a memorial for Lanne, shame prevailed and no memorial was built.
The one who eventually earned himself an impressive statue, however, was William Crowther.
The doctor entered politics shortly after the bloody events, and a successful career led him to be elected prime minister of Tasmania in 1878.
No wonder he had so many supporters, because nothing is ever just black or white: despite the murky episode, Crowther was well-liked because as a doctor he had always provided medical care for the poor and the natives. He remained in politics until his death in 1885; he declared he never lost a night’s sleep over “King Billy’s head”, as he always claimed the whole affair had been a set-up to discredit him.
Stockell, for his part, was not reappointed house surgeon at the hospital at the end of his probationary period, and moved to Campbell Town where he died in 1878.
The Lanne scandal had at least one positive consequence: in the wake of the controversy, Tasmania promulgated its first Anatomy Bill in August 1869, regulating the practice of dissections.
What about the bones of William Lanne?
His skeleton was almost certainly hidden among the properties of the Royal Society museum. We ignore what happened to it.
The same goes for his skull, as no one ever heard of it anymore. Yet strangely, Crowther was appointed a gold medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1874 for his “valuable and numerous contributions” to the Hunterian museum. What exactly these contributions were, we do not know exactly; but it is natural to suspect that the honorary fellowship had something to do with the infamous Lanne skull, maybe shipped to London in secret.
However, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond doubt that the skull ever got to England, and the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of human crania was destroyed during the Nazi bombings.
What is certain is that Crowther risked everything he had, his reputation and his profession, for that one skull. And here is the bitter irony: in 1881, the Hunterian curator himself publicly questioned the validity of craniology in determining the alleged races.
Today it is clear that this axious cataloguing and classifying was “a futile effort“, since “the concept of race in the human species has not obtained any consensus from the scientific point of view, and it is probably destined not to find it” (from The History and Geography of Human Genes, 2000).
Regardless of where they were kept hidden, neither the skull nor the skeleton of William Lanne were ever scientifically studied, and they did not appear in any research.
After all that was done to expropriate them, conquer them and annex them to one collection or another, and despite their supposedly fundamental relevance to the understanding of evolution, those human remains were forgotten in some crate or closet.
The important thing was to have them colonized.
The main source for this article is Stefan Petrow, The Last Man: The Mutilation of William Lanne in 1869 and Its Aftermath (1997), PDF available online.
Also interesting is the story of Truganini, William Lanne’s wife and the last “full-blood” Aboriginal woman, who suffered a less dramatic but somewhat similar post-mortem calvary.
The procedure used by Crowther to replace a skull without disfiguring the corpse has its own fascinating story, as told by Frances Larson in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014) – a book I can never praise enough.
These photos date back to 2016; they were taken in the temple of Chongfu, located on a hill in the city of Quanzhou in China, during the opening of the vase containing the mummified remains of Fu Hou, a Buddhist monk who had died in 2012 at the age of 94.
The body still sat in the lotus position and looked well-preserved; so it was washed and disinfected, wrapped in gauze, sealed in red lacquer and finally covered with gold leaves. He was dressed and placed inside a glass case, so that he could be revered by worshippers.
Mummification of those monks who are believed to have achieved a higher spiritual perfection is not unheard of: at one time a sort of “self-mummification” was even practised (I wrote about it in this old post, Italian only). And in 2015, some Dutch scholars made a CT scan of a statue belonging to the Drents Museum collection and discovered that it contained the remains of master Liquan, who died around 1100 AD.
It might seem a paradox that in the Buddhist tradition, which has made accepting impermanence (anitya) one of the cornerstones of ritual and contemplative practice, so much attention is placed on the bodies of these “holy” monks, to the extent of turning them into relics.
But veneration for such characters is probably an effect of the syncretism, which took place in China, between Buddhism and Taoism; the Buddhist concept of arhat, which indicates the person who has experienced nirvana (even without reaching the higher status of bodhisattva or true “buddhahood“), has blended with the Taoist figure of zhenren, the “True Man”, able to spontaneously conform his actions to the Tao.
In the excellent preservation of the mummies, many Buddhists see a proof that these great spiritual masters are not really dead, but simply suspended in an advanced, perfect state of meditation.
Step right up! A new batch of weird news from around the world, amazing stories and curious facts to get wise with your friends! Guaranteed to break the ice at parties!
China, Shanxi province, on the nothern part of the Republic.
At the beginningof 2016, the Hongtong County police chief gave the warning: during the three previous years, at least a dozen thefts of corpses were recorded each year. All the exhumed and smuggled bodies were of young women, and the trend is incresing so fast that many families now prefer to bury their female relatives near their homes, rather than in secluded areas. Others resort to concrete graves, install surveillance cameras, hire security guards or plant gratings around the burial site, just like in body snatchers England. It looks like in some parts of the province, the body of a young dead girl is never safe enough.
What’s behind this unsettling trend?
These episodes of body theft are connected to a very ancient tradition which was thought to be long abandoned: the custom of “netherworld marriages”.
The death of a young unmarried male is considered bad lack for the entire family: the boy’s soul cannot find rest, without a mate.
For this reasons his relatives, in the effort of finding a spouse for the deceased man, turn to matchmakers who can put them in contact with other families having recently suffered the lost of a daughter. A marriage is therefore arranged for the two dead young persons, following a specific ritual, until they are finally buried together, much to the relief of both families.
This kind of marriages seem to date back to the Qin dinasty (221-206 a.C.) even if the main sources attest a more widespread existence of the practice starting from the Han dinasty (206 a.C.-220 d.C.).
The problem is that as the traffic becomes more and more profitable, some of these matchmakers have no qualms about exhuming the precious corpses in secret: to sell the bodies, they sometimes pretend to be relatives of the dead girl, but in other cases they simply find grieving families who are ready to pay in order to find a bride for their departed loved one, and willing to turn a blind eye on the cadaver’s provenance.
Until some years ago, “ghost marriages” were performed by using symbolic bamboo figurines, dressed in traditional clothes; today weath is increasing, and as much as 100,000 yan (around $15,000) can be spent on the fresh body of a young girl. Even older human remains, put back together with wire, can be worth up to $800. The village elders, after all, are the ones who warn new generations: to cast away bad luck nothing beats an authentic corpse.
Although the practice has been outlawed in 2006, the business is so lucrative that the number of arrests keep increasing, and at least two cases of murder have been reported in the news where the victim was killed in order to sell her body.
If at first glance this tradition may seem macabre or senseless, let us consider its possible motivations.
In the province where these episodes are more frequent, a large number of young men work in coal mines, where fatal accidents are sadly common. The majority of these boys are the sole children of their parents, because of the Chinese one-child policy, effective until 2013.
So, apart from reasons dictated by superstition, there is also an important psychological element: imagine the relief if, in the process of elaborating grief, you could still do something to make your dearly departed happy. Here’s how a “ghost wedding” acts as a compensation for the loss of a loved boy, who maybe died while working to support his family.
Marriages between two deceased persons, or between a living person and a dead one, are not even unique to China, for that matter. In France posthumous marriages (which usually take place when a woman prematurely loses her fiancé) are regularly requested to the President of the Republic, who has the power of issuing the authorization. The purpose is to acknowledge children who were conceived before the premature death, but there may also been purely emotional motivations. In fact there’s a relatively long list of countries that allowed for marriages in which one or both the newlywed were no longer alive.
In closing, here is a little curiosity.
In the well-known Tim Burton film Corpse Bride (2005), inspired by a centuries-old folk tale (the short story Die Todtenbraut by F. A. Schulze, found within the Fantasmagoriana anthology, is a Romantic take on that tale), the main character puts a ring on a small branch, unaware that this light-hearted move is actually sanctioning his netherworld engagement.
Quite similar to that harmless-looking twig is a “trick” used in Taiwan when a young girl dies unmarried: her relatives leave out on the streets a small red package containing Hell money, a lock of hair or some nails from the dead woman. The first man to pick up the package has to marry the deceased girl, if he wants to avoid misfortune. He will be allowed to marry again, but he shall forever revere the “ghost” bride as his first, real spouse.
These rituals become necessary when an individual enters the afterlife prematurely, without undergoing a fundamental rite of passage like marriage (therefore without completing the “correct” course of his life). As is often the case with funeral customs, the practice has a beneficial and apotropaic function both for the social group of the living and for the deceased himself.
On one hand all the bad luck that could harm the relatives of the dead is turned away; a bond is formed between two different families, which could not have existed without a proper marriage; and, at the same time, everybody can rest assured that the soul will leave this world at peace, and will not depart for the last voyage bearing the mark of an unfortunate loneliness.
As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.
Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.
Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.
Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.
Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.
This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.
(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)
For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.
(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)
What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:
We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.
(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)
The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:
In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.
Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.
This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.
Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:
The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.
(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)
In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.
And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.
Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.
The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.
I have sometimes talked about the false dichotomy between Nature and Culture, that weird, mostly Western aberration that sees mankind separated and opposed to the rest of the environment. This feeling of estrangement is what’s behind the melancholy for the original union, now presumed lost: we look at birds in a tree, and regret we are not that carefree and unrestrained; we look at our cities and struggle to find them “natural”, because we insisted in building them with rigid geometries rarely found elsewhere, as if to mark the difference with all other habitats in which straight lines seldom exist.
This vision of man as a creature completely different from other living beings has found an obvious declination in Western burials. It’s one of the very few traditions in which the grave is designed to keep the body from returning to earth (of course in the past centuries this also had to do with the idea of preserving the body for the ultimate Resurrection).
But there is someone who is trying to change this perspective.
Picture your death as a voyage through three different states of matter. Imagine crossing the boundaries between animal, mineral and plant kingdom.
This is the concept behind Capsula Mundi, an italian startup devised by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, which over the past decade has been trying to achieve a new, eco-friendly and poetic kind of burial. An egg made of biodegradable material will wrap the body arranged in fetal position, or the ashes; once planted underground, it will grow a specific tree, chosen by the deceased when still alive. One after the other, these “graves” will form a real sacred forest where relatives and friends can wander around, taking care of the very plants grown, fed and left as inheritance by their dear departed. A more joyful alternative to the heavy, squared marble gravestone, and a way of accepting death as a transition, a transformation rather than the end of life.
Actually the very idea of a “capsule” incorporates two separate connotations. On one hand there’s the scientific idea of a membrane, of a cell, of a seed for new life. And the shell enveloping the body — not by chance arranged in fetal position — is a sort of replica of the original embryo, a new amniotic sac which symbolically affirms the specularity (or even the identity) of birth and death. On the other, there is the concept of a “capsule” as a vehicle, a sci-fi pod, a vessel leading the corpse from the animal kingdom to the mineral kingdom, allowing all the body components to decompose and to be absorbed by the plant roots.
Death may look like a black monolith, but it gives rise to the cosmic fetus, the ever-changing mutation.
The planting of a tree on burial grounds also refers to the Roman tradition:
For the ancients, being buried under the trees enabled the deceased body to be absorbed by the roots, and matter to be brought back to life within the plant. Such an interpenetration between the corpse and the arboreal organism therefore suggested a highly symbolic meaning: plunging his roots inside mother earth and pushing his top towards the sky, it was like the deceased was stretching out his arms, to protect and save his descendants, in a continuing dialogue with posterity’s affection and memory.
(N. Giordano, Roma, potenza e simbologia: dai boschi sacri al “Miglio d’oro”, in SILVÆ – Anno VI n. 14)
I asked some questions to Anna Citelli, creator of Capsula Mundi along with Raoul Bretzel.
It is clear today that the attitude towards death and dying is changing, after a century of medicalization and removal: more and more people feel the need to discuss these topics, to confront them and above all to find new (secular) narratives addressing them. In this sense, Capsula Mundi is both a practical and symbolic project. From what did you draw inspiration for this idea? The “capsule” was shaped like an egg from the beginning, or were you initially thinking of something else?
We unveiled the Capsula Mundi project in 2003, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It was not the first time we exhibited at the Salon, albeit independently from one another. Our works at the time were already a reflection on sustainability, and when we had the occasion to work together we asked ourselves some questions about the role of designers in a society which appears removed from nature, well-satisfied and overwhelmed by objects for every necessity.
We decided to devote our work to a moment in life of extreme importance, charged with symbolic references, just like birth and wedding. Death is a delicate passage, mysterious and inevitable. It is the moment in which the person stops consuming or producing, therefore in theory it’s something distant from the glossy environment of design. But if we look at it as a natural phenomenon, a transformation of substances, death is the moment in which the being is reconnected with nature, with its perpetual changing. The coffin, an object neglected by designers, becomes a way of reflecting on the presumption that we are not part of the biological cycle of life, a reflection on a taboo. Adopting the perfect shape of the egg was an immediate and instinctive choice, the only one that could indicate our thought: that death is not an end or an interruption, but the beginning of a new path.
How does Capsula Mundi relate to the death-positive movement? Is your project, while not aspiring to replace traditional burials but rather to offer an alternative choice, also intended to promote a cultural debate?
We have been presenting the concept of Capsula Mundi for more than a decade now, and in the last few years in the public we have finally seen a rising need to talk about death, free from any negative cultural conditioning. It is a collective and transversal need which leads to an enrichment we’ve all been waiting for. We receive a lot of letters from all over the world, from architecture students to palliative treatments operators, from botany students to documentary filmmakers. A whole variety of human beings sharing different experiences, trying to achieve a social change through debate and confrontation, to gain a new perspective on the end of life.
What point is the project at, and what difficulties are you encountering?
Green burials are prohibited in Italy, but seeing the huge demand we receive every day we decided to start the production of the small version of Capsula Mundi, for cremated remains. In the meantime we are carrying on the studies to build capsules for the whole body, but we still need some time for research.
Green burials are already a reality in other countries, as are humanist funerals. Do you think the Italian legislation in funeral matters will change any time soon?
We think that laws are always a step behind social changes. In Italy cemetery regulations date back to Napoleonic times, and legislative change will not happen quickly. But the debate is now open, and sooner or later we too will have memorial parks. Regarding cremated remains, for instance, many things have already changed, almost all regions adjusted to the citizens requests and chose some areas in which the ashes can be spread. Up until some years ago, the urn had to be left within the cemetery, under lock and key and in the keeper’s custody.
How is the audience responding to your project?
Very well. Since the beginning, in 2003, our project never caused any uproar or complaint. It was always understood beyond our expectations. Now, with the help of social medias, its popularity has grown and we just reached 34.000 likes on Facebook. In november 2015 we presented Capsula Mundi to an English-speaking audience at TEDx Torino and it’s been a huge success. For us it is a wonderful experience.
Official site: Capsula Mundi.
The Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, is home to the Anga people.
Once fearsome warriors, leading terrible raids in nearby peaceful villages, today the Anga have learned how to profit from a peculiar kind of tourism. Anthropologists, adventurers and curious travelers come to the isolated villages of Morobe Highlands just to see their famous smoked mummies.
It’s not clear when the practice first started, but it could be at least 200 years old. It was officially prohibited in 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent; therefore the most recent mummies date back to the years following the Second World War.
This treatment of honor was usually reserved for the most valiant warriors: as soon as they died, they were bled dry, disemboweled and put over a fire to cure. The smoking could last even more than a month. At last, when the body was completely dry, all corporal cavities were sewn shut and the whole corpse was smeared with mud and red clay to further preserve the flesh from deteriorating, and to form a protective layer against insects and scavengers.
Many sources report that the fat deriving from the smoking process was saved and later used as cooking oil, but this detail might be a fantasy of the first explorers (for instance Charles Higgingon, who was the first to report about the mummies in 1907): whenever Westeners came in contact with remote and “primitive” tribes, they often wanted to see cannibalism even in rituals that did not involve any.
The smoked bodies were then brought, after a ritual ceremony, on mountain slopes overlooking the village. Here they were secured to the steep rock face using bamboo structures, so they could act as a lookout, protecting the abodes in the underlying valley. This way, they maintained their warrior status even after their death.
The bodies are still worshipped today, and sometimes brought back to the village to be restored: the dead man’s descendants change the bush rope bandages, and secure the bones to the sticks, before placing the ancestor back to his lookout post.
Despite the mummies being mainly those of village warriors, as mentioned, among them are sometimes found the remains of some woman who held a particularly important position within the tribe. The one in the following picture is still holding a baby to her breast.
This method for preserving the bodies, as peculiar as it looks, closely resembles both the Toraja funeral rites of Indonesia (I talked about them in this post) and the much more ancient “fire mummies” which can be found in Kabayan, in northern Philippines. Here the corpse was also placed over a fire to dry, curled in fetal position; tobacco smoke was blown into the dead man’s mouth to further parch internal organs. The prepared bodies were then put in pinewood coffins and layed down in natural caves or in niches especially dug inside the mountains. The ancestor spirit’s integrity was thus guaranteed, so he could keep on protecting the village and assuring its prosperity.
In The Eternal Vigil I have written about how, until recent times, the Palermo Catacombs allowed a contact with the afterlife, so much so that young boys could learn their family history before the mummies, and ask for their help and benevolence. Death was not really the end of existence, and did not present itself as an irreparable separation, because between the two spheres an ongoing interchange took place.
In much the same way, on the other side of the world, ritual mummification guaranteed communication between the dead and the living, defining a clear but not impenetrable threshold between the two worlds. Death was a change of state, so to speak, but did not erase the personality of the deceased, nor his role within the community, which became if possible even more relevant.
Even today, when asked by a local guide escorting the tourists to see the mummies, an Anga man can point to one of the corpses hanging from the rock, and present him with these words: “That’s my grandpa“.
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
The Order of the Good Death
Caitlin Doughty’s Youtube channel and her book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.