Death and Broken Cups

This article originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death. I have already written, here and here, about the death positive movement, to which this post is meant as a small contribution.

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As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men”.

This passage from the will of the Marquis de Sade has always struck a chord with me. Of course, he penned it as his last raging, disdainful grimace at mankind, but the very same thought can also be peaceful.
I have always been sensitive to the poetic, somewhat romantic fantasy of the taoist or buddhist monk retiring on his pretty little mountain, alone, to get ready for death. In my younger days, I thought dying meant leaving the world behind, and that it carried no responsibility. In fact, it was supposed to finally free me of all responsibility. My death belonged only to me.
An intimate, sacred, wondrous experience I would try my best to face with curiosity.
Impermanence? Vanishing “from the minds of men”? Who cares. If my ego is transient like everything else, that’s actually no big deal. Let me go, people, once and for all.
In my mind, the important thing was focusing on my own death. To train. To prepare.

I want my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet”, I would write in my diary.
I’d prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone. Without leaving any trace of my passage”.

Unfortunately, I am now well aware it won’t happen this way, and I shall be denied the sweet comfort of being swiftly forgotten.
I have spent most of my time domesticating death – inviting it into my home, making friends with it, understanding it – and now I find the only thing I truly fear about my own demise is the heartbreak it will inevitably cause. It’s the other side of loving and being loved: death will hurt, it will come at the cost of wounding and scarring the people I cherish the most.

Dying is never just a private thing, it’s about others.
And you can feel comfortable, ready, at peace, but to look for a “good” death means to help your loved ones prepare too. If only there was a simple way.

The thing is, we all endure many little deaths.
Places can die: we come back to the playground we used to run around as kids, and now it’s gone, swallowed up by a hideous gas station.
The melancholy of not being allowed to kiss for the first time once again.
We’ve ached for the death of our dreams, of our relationships, of our own youth, of the exciting time when every evening out with our best friends felt like a new adventure. All these things are gone forever.
And we have experienced even smaller deaths, like our favorite mug tumbling to the floor one day, and breaking into pieces.

It’s the same feeling every time, as if something was irremediably lost. We look at the fragments of the broken mug, and we know that even if we tried to glue them together, it wouldn’t be the same cup anymore. We can still see its image in our mind, remember what it was like, but know it will never be whole again.

I have sometimes come across the idea that when you lose someone, the pain can never go away; but if you learn to accept it you can still go on living. That’s not enough, though.
I think we need to embrace grief, rather than just accepting it, we need to make it valuable. It sounds weird, because pain is a new taboo, and we live in a world that keeps on telling us that suffering has no value. We’re always devising painkillers for any kind of aching. But sorrow is the other side of love, and it shapes us, defines us and makes us unique.

For centuries in Japan potters have been taking broken bowls and cups, just like our fallen mug, and mending them with lacquer and powdered gold, a technique called kintsugi. When the object is reassembled, the golden cracks – forming such a singular decoration, impossible to duplicate – become its real quality. Scars transform a common bowl into a treasure.

I would like my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet.
I would prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone, and tell my dear ones: don’t be afraid.

You think the cup is broken, but sorrow is the other side of love, it proves that you have loved. And it is a golden lacquer which can be used to put the pieces together.
Here, look at this splinter: this is that winter night we spent playing the blues before the fireplace, snow outside the window and mulled wine in our glasses.
Take this other one: this is when I told you I’d decided to quit my job, and you said go ahead, I’m on your side.
This piece is when you were depressed, and I dragged you out and took you down to the beach to see the eclipse.
This piece is when I told you I was in love with you.

We all have a kintsugi heart.
Grief is affection, we can use it to keep the splinters together, and turn them into a jewel. Even more beautiful than before.
As Tom Waits put it, “all that you’ve loved, is all you own“.

La Morgue, yesterday and today

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)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

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.

 

Painting on water

If you have some old books at home, you might be acquainted with those decorated covers and flaps showing colorful designs that resemble marble patterns.
Paper marbling has very ancient origins, probably dating back to 2.000 years ago in China, even though the technique ultimately took hold in Japan during the Heian period (VIII-XII Century), under the name of suminagashi. The secret of suminagashi was jealously kept and passed on from father to son, among families of artists; the most beautiful and pleasant examples were used to adorn poems or sutras.

From Japan through the Indies, this method came to Persia and Turkey, where it became a refined art called ebru. Western travellers brought it back to Europe where marbled paper was eventually produced on a large scale to cover books and boxes.

Today in Turkey ebru is still considered a traditional art. Garip Ay (born 1984), who graduated from Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul, has become one of the best-known ebru artists in the world, holding workshops and seminars from Scandinavia to the United States. Thanks to his extraordinary talents in painting on water, he appeared in documentaries and music videos.

His latest work recently went viral: painting on black water, and using a thickening agent so that the insoluble colors could better float on the surface, Garip Ay recreated two famous Van Gogh paintings, the 1889 Starry night and the iconic Self-portrait. All in just 20 minutes (condensed in a 4-minute video).

The magic and wonder of this suprising exploit reside of course in Ay’s precise artistic execution, but what is most striking is the fluidity, unpredictability, precariousness of the aqueous support: in this regard, ebru really shows to be a product of the East.
There is no need to stress the major symbolic role played by water, and by harmonizing with its movements, in Eastern philosophical disciplines: painting on water becomes a pure exercise in wu wei, an “effortless action” which allows the color to organize following its own nature, while the artist gently puts its qualities to good use in order to obtain the desired effect. Thus, the very obstacle which appeared to make the endeavour difficult (the unsteady water, disturbed by even the smallest breath) turns into an advantage — as long as the artist doesn’t oppose it, but rather uses its natural movement.
At its heart, this technique teaches us a sublime lightness in dealing with reality, seen as a tremulous surface on which we can learn to delicately spread our own colors.

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Here is Garip Ay’s official website, and his YouTube channel where you can witness the fascinating creation of several other works.
On Amazon: Suminagashi: The Japanese Art of Marbling by Anne Chambers. And if you want to try marbling yourself, there is nothing better than a starter kit.

Afterlife

What will we feel in the moment of death?
What will come after the initial, inevitable fear?
Shall we sense a strange familiarity with the extreme, simultaneous relaxation of every muscle?
Will the ultimate abandonment remind us of the ancient, primitive annihilation we experience during an orgasm?

Following Epicurus’ famous reasoning (which is, by the way, philosophically and ethically debatable), we should not even worry about such things because when death is present, we are not, and viceversa.
Unknowability of death: as is often said, “no one ever came back” to tell us what lies on the other side. Despite this idea, religious traditions have often described in detail the various phases the soul is bound to go through, once it has stepped over the invisible threshold.

Through the centuries, this has led to the writing of actual handbooks explaining the best way to day.
Western Ars moriendi focused on the moments right before death, while in the East the stress was more on what came after it. But eventually most spiritual philosophies share the fear that the passage might entail some concrete dangers for the spirit of the dying person: demons and visions will try to divert the soul’s attention from the correct path.
In death, one can get lost.

One of the intuitions I find most interesting can be found in Part II of the Bardo Thodol:

O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not
daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it.
From the midst of that radiance, the natural sound of Reality, reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come. That is the natural sound of thine own real self. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. […] Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come — sounds, lights, or rays — are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms.

It seems to me that this idea, although described in the book in a figurative way, might in a sense resist even to a skeptical, seular gaze. If stripped of its buddhist symbolic-shamanic apparatus, it looks almost like an “objective” observation: death is essentially that natural state from which we took shape and to which we will return. Whatever we shall experience after death — if we are going to experience anything, be it little or much — is ultimately all there is to understand. In poetic terms, it is our own true face, the bottom of things, our intimate reality.

In 1978 Indian animator Ishu Patel, fascinated by these questions, decided to put into images his personal view of what lies beyond. His award-winning short movie Afterlife still offers one of the most suggestive allegorical representations of death as a voyage: a psychedelic trip, first and foremost, but also a moment of essential clarity. The consciousness, upon leaving the body, is confronted with archetypical, shape-shifting figures, and enters a non-place of the mind where nothing is certain and yet everything speaks an instantly recognizable language.

Patel’s artistic and fantastic representation depicts death as a moment when one’s whole life is reviewed, when we will be given a glimpse of the mystery of existence. A beautiful idea, albeit a bit too comforting.
Patel declared to have taken inspiration from Eastern mythologies and from near-death experience accounts (NDE), and this latter detail poses a further question: even supposing that in the moment of death we could witness similar visions, wouldn’t they actually be a mere illusion?

Of course, science tells us that NDE are perfectly coherent with the degenerative neurological processes the brain undergoes when it’s dying. Just like we are now aware of the psychophysical causes of mystic ecstasy, of auto-hypnotic states induced by repeating mantras or prayers, of visions aroused by prolonged fasting or by ingestion of psychoactive substances which are used in many shamanic rituals, etc.
But the physiological explanation of these alteration in consciousness does not undermine their symbolic force.
The sublime beauty of hallucinations lies in the fact that it does not really matter if they’re true or not; what is relevant is the meaning we bestow upon them.

Maybe, after all, only one thing can be really asserted: death still remains a white canvas. It’s up to us what we project on its blank screen.
Afterlife does just that, with the enigmatic lightness of a dance; it is a touching, awe-inspiring ride to the center of all things.

Afterlife, Ishu Patel, National Film Board of Canada