Children of the Grave

They give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant,
then it’s night once more.

(S. Beckett, Aspettando Godot)

An Italian Horror Story

Castel del Giudice, Italy.
On the 5th of August 1875, a pregnant woman, indicated in the documents with the initials F. D’A., died during labor, before being able to give birth to her child.
On the following day, without respecting the required minimum waiting time before interment, her body was lowered into the cemetery’s fossa carnaria. This was a kind of collective burial for the poorest classes, still common at the time in hundreds of Italian communes: it consisted in a sealed underground space, a room or a pit, where the corpses were stacked and left to rot (some inside coffins, others wrapped in simple shrouds).

For the body of F. D’A., things began to get ugly right from the start:

She had to be lowered in the pit, so the corpse was secured with a rope, but the rope broke and D’A.’s poor body fell from a certain height, her head bumping into a casket. Some people climbed down, they took D’A. and arranged her on her back upon a nearby coffin, where she laid down with a deathly pale face, her hands tied together and resting on her abdomen, her legs joined by stitched stockings. Thus, and not otherwise, D’A. was left by the participants who buried her.

But when, a couple of days later, the pit was opened again in order to bury another deceased girl, a terrible vision awaited the bystanders:

F. D’A.’s sister hurried to give a last goodbye to her dead relative, but as soon as she looked down to the place where her sister was laid to rest, she had to observe the miserable spectacle of her sister placed in a very different position from the one she had been left in; between her legs was the fetus she had given birth to, inside the grave, and together with whom she had miserably died. […] Officers immediately arrived, and found D’A.’s body lying on her left side, her face intensely strained; her hands, still tied by a white cotton ribbon, formed an arch with her arms and rested on her forehead, while pieces of white ribbon were found between her teeth […]. At the mother’s feet stood a male newborn child with his umbilical cord, showing well-proportioned and developed limbs.

Imagine the horror of the poor woman, waking up in the dark in the grip of labor pains; with her last remaining energy she had succeeded in giving birth to her child, only to die shortly after, “besieged by corpses, lacking air, assistance or food, and exhausted by the blood loss suffered during delivery“.
One could hardly picture a more dreadful fate.

The case had a huge resonance all across Italy; a trial took place at the Court of Isernia, and the town physician, the mayor and the undertaker were found guilty of two involuntary murders “aggravated by gross negligence“, sentenced to six months in jail and fined (51 liras) – but the punishment was later cut by half by the Court of Appeal of Naples in November 1877.
This unprecedented reduction of penalty was harshly criticized by the Times correspondant in Italy, who observed that “the circumstances of the case, if well analyzed, show the slight value which is attached to human life in this country“; the news also appeared in the New York Times as well as in other British and American newspapers.

This story, however scary – because it is so scary – should be taken with a pinch of salt.
There’s more than one reason to be careful.

Buried Alive?

First of all, the theme of a pregnant woman believed dead and giving birth in a grave was already a recurring motif in the Nineteeth Century, as taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) reached its peak.

Folklorist Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988) argues that the number of people actually buried alive was highly exaggerated in the chronicles; a stance also shared by Jan Bondeson, who in one of the most complete books on the subject, Buried Alive, shows how the large majority of nineteenth-century premature burial accounts are not reliable.

For the most part it would seem to be a romantic, decadent literary topos, albeit inspired by a danger that was certainly real in the past centuries: interpreting the signs of death was a complex and often approximate procedure, so much so that by the 1700s some treatises (the most famous one being Winslow‘s) introduced a series of measures to verify with greater accuracy the passing of a patient.

A superficial knowledge of decomposition processes could also lead to misunderstandings.
When bodies were exhumed, it was not uncommon to find their position had changed; this was due to the cadaver’s natural tendency to move during decomposition, and to be sometimes subjected to small “explosions” caused by putrefaction gasses – explosions that are powerful enough to rotate the body’s upper limbs. Likewise, the marks left by rodents or other scavengers (loose dirt, scratches, bite marks, torn clothes, fallen hair) could be mistaken for the deceased person’s desperate attempts at getting out.

Yet, as we’ve said, there was a part of truth, and some unfortunate people surely ended up alive inside a coffin. Even with all our modern diagnostic tools, every now and then someone wakes up in a morgue. But these events are, today like yesterday, extremely rare, and these stories speak more about a cultural fear rather than a concrete risk.

Coffin Birth

If being buried alive was already an exceptional fact, then the chances of a pregnant woman actually giving birth inside a grave look even slimmer. But this idea – so charged with pathos it could only fascinate the Victorian sensibility – might as well have come from real observations. Opening a woman’s grave and finding a stillborn child must have looked like a definitive proof of her premature burial.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the fetus can, in rare circumstances, be expelled postmortem.

Anaerobic microorganisms, which start the cadaver’s putrefactive phase, release several gasses during their metabolic activity. During this emphysematous stage, internal tissues stretch and tighten; the torso, abdomen and legs swell; the internal pressure caused by the accumulation of gas can lead, within the body of a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, to a separation of amniotic membranes, a prolapse of the uterus and a subsequent total or partial extrusion of the fetus.
This event appears to be more likely if the dead woman has been pregnant before, on the account of a more elastic cervix.
This  strange phenomenon is called Sarggeburt (coffin birth) in early German forensic literature.

The first case of postmortem delivery dates back to 1551, when a woman hanged on the gallows released, four hours after her execution, the bodies of two twins, both dead. (A very similar episode happened in 2007 in India, when a woman killed herself during labor; in that instance, the baby was found alive and healthy.)
In Brussels, in 1633, a woman died of convulsions and three days later a fetus was spontaneously expelled. The same thing happened in Weißenfels, Saxony, in 1861. Other cases are mentioned in the first medical book to address this strange event, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, published in 1896, but for the most part these accidents occurred when the body of the mother had yet to be buried.
It was John Whitridge Williams who, in his fortunate Obstetrics: a text-book for the use of students and practitioners (1904), pointed to the possibility of postmortem delivery taking place after burial.

Fetal extrusion after the mother’s death has also been observed in recent times.

A 2005 case involved a woman who died in her apartment from acute heroine intoxication: upon finding her body, it was noted that the fetus head was protruding from the mother’s underwear; but later on, during the autopsy, the upper part of the baby’s torso was also visible – a sign that gasses had continued to build in the abdominal region, increasing interior pressure.
In 2008 a 38 year-old, 7 months pregnant woman was found murdered in a field in advanced state of decomposition, accelerated by tropical climate. During the autopsy a fetus was found inside the woman’s slips, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta (here is the forensic case study – WARNING: graphic).

Life In Death

So, going back to that unfortunate lady from Castel del Giudice, what really happened to her?
Sure, the autopsy report filed at the time and quoted in the trial papers mentioned the presence of air in the baby’s lungs, a proof that the child was born alive. And it’s possible that this was the case.

But on one hand this story fits all too perfectly within a specific popular narrative of its time, whose actual statistical incidence has been doubted by scholars; on the other, the possibility of postmortem fetal extrusion is well-documented, so much so that even archeologists sometimes struggle to interpret ancient skeletal findings showing fetuses still partially enclosed within the pelvic bone.

The only certain thing is that these stories – whether they’re authentic or made up – have an almost archetypal quality; birth and death entwined in a single place and time.
Maybe they’re so enthralling because, on a symbolic level, they remind us of a peculiar truth, one expressed in a famous verse from
ManiliusAstronomica:

Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

As we are born we die, our end commences with our beginning.”

Welcome To The Dollhouse

Anatoly Moskvin, a linguist and philologist born in 1966 in Nizhny Novgorod, had earned the unquestioning respect of his fellow academics.
He fluently spoke thirteen languages, and was the author of important studies and academic papers. Great expert of Celtic folklore and of Russian funerary customs, at the age of 45 he was still living with his parents; he refrained from drinking or smoking, collected dolls and it was murmured that he was a virgin. But everybody knows that geniuses are always a little eccentric.

Yet Anatoly Moskvin was hiding a secret. A personal mission he felt he had to accomplish, driven by compassion and love, but one he knew his fellow citizens, not to mention the law, would have deemed crazy.
That very secret was to seal his fate, behind the walls of the mental institute where Anatoly Moskvin now spends his days.

Nizhny Novgorod, capital of the Volga District and the fifth Russian city, is an important cultural centre. In the surroundin areas several hundred graveyards cand be found, and in 2005 Moskvin was assigned the task of recording all the headstones: in two years he visited more than 750 cemeteries.
It was a tough job. Anatoly was forced to walk alone, sometimes for 30 km a day, facing harsh condistions. He had to spend many nights outdoors, drinking from puddles and taking shelter in the abandoned barns of the inhospitable region. One night, caught in the dark, to avoid freezing to death he found no better option than to break in the cemetery burial chamber and sleep in a coffin which was already prepared for next morning’s funeral. When at dawn the gravediggers arrived, they found him sleeping: Anatoly dashed off shouting his excuses – among the general laughter of undertakers who luckily did not chase after him.

The amount of data Mskvin gathered during this endeavour was unprecedented, and the study promised to be “unique” and “priceless”, in the words of those who followed its development. It was never published, but it served as the basis for a long series of articles on the history of Nizhny Novgorod’s cemeteries, published by Moskvin between 2006 and 2010.
But in 2011 the expert’s career ended forever, the day the police showed up to search his home.

Among the 60.000 books in is private library, stacked along the walls and on the floor, between piles of scattered paper and amidst a confusion of objects and documents, the agents found 26 strange, big dolls that gave off an unmistakable foul odor.
These were actually the mummified corpses of 26 little girls, three to 12-year-olds.
Anatoly Moskvin’s secret mission, which lasted for twenty years, had finally been discovered.

Celt druids – as well as Siberian shamans – slept on graves to communicate with the spirits of the deceased. For many years Anatoly did the same. He would lay down on the grave of a recently buried little girl, and speak with her. How are you in that tomb, little angel? Are you cold? Would you like to take a walk?
Some girls answered that they felt alright, and in that case Anatoly shared their happiness.
Other times, the child wept, and expressed the desire to come back to life.
Who would have got the heart to leave them down there, alone and frightened in the darkness of a coffin?

Anatoly studied mummification methods in his books. After exhuming the bodies, he dried them with a mixture of salt and baking soda, hiding them around the cemetery. When they dried out completely, he brought them home and dressed them, providing a bit of thickness to the shrunken limbs with layers of fabric. In some cases he built wax masks, painted with nail polish, to cover their decomposed faces; he bought wigs, bright-colored clothes in the attempt of giving back to those girls their lost beauty.


His elderly parents, who were mostly away from home, did not realize what he was doing. If their son had the hobby of building big puppets, what was wrong with that? Anatoly even disguised one of the bodies as a plush bear.

Moskvin talked to these little bodies he had turned into dolls, he bought them presents. They watched cartoons together, sang songs, held birthday parties.

But he knew this was only a temporary solution. His hope was that science would someday find a way to bring “his” girls back to life – or maybe he himself, during his academic research, could find some ancient black magic spell that would achieve the same effect. Either way, in the meantime, those little girls needed to be comforted and cuddled.

You can’t imagine it”, said during the trial the mother of one of the girls Moskvin stole from the cemetery and mummified. ”You can’t imagine that somebody would touch the grave of your child, the most holy place in this world for you. We had been visiting the grave of our child for nine years and we had no idea it was empty. Instead, she was in this beast’s apartment. […] For nine years he was living with my mummified daughter in his bedroom. I had her for ten years, he had her for nine.”.

Anatoly replied: “You abandoned your girls in the cold – and I brought them home and warmed them up”.

Charged with desecration of graves and dead bodies, Moskvin faced up to five years in prison; but in 2012 he was declared suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, unfit to stand trial, and thus sentenced for coercitive sanitary treatment. In all probability, he will never get out of the psychiatric institute he’s held in.

The little girls never awoke.

Moskvin’s story is somehow analogue to the ones I told in this series of posts:
L’amore che non muore – I   (Italian only)
L’amore che non muore – II  (Italian only)
L’amore che non muore – III  (English)

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 6

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!

  • Have you seen those adorable and lovely fruit bats? How would you like to own a pet bat, making all those funny expressions as you feed him a piece of watermelon or banana?
    In this eye-opening article a bat expert explains all the reasons why keeping these mammals as domestic pets is actually a terrible idea.
    There are not just ethical reasons (you would practically ruin their existence) or economic reasons (keeping them healthy would cost you way more than you can imagine); the big surprise here is that, despite those charming OMG-it’s-so-cuuute little faces, bats — how should I put it — are not exactly good-mannered.
    As they hang upside down, they rub their own urine all over their body, in order to stink appropriately. They defecate constantly. And most of all, they engage in sex all the time — straight, homosexual, vaginal, oral and anal sex, you name it. If you keep them alone, males will engage in stubborn auto-fellatio. They will try and hump you, too.
    And if you still think ‘Well, now, how bad can that be’, let me remind you that we’re talking about this.
    Next time your friend posts a video of cuddly bats, go ahead and link this pic. You’re welcome.
  • Sex + animals, always good fun. Take for example the spider Latrodectus: after mating, the male voluntarily offers himself in sacrifice to be eaten by his female partner, to benefit their offspring. And he’s not the only animal to understand the evolutionary advantages of cannibalism.
  • From cannibals to zombies: the man picture below is Clairvius Narcisse. He is sitting on his own grave, from which he rose transformed into a real living dead.
    You can find his story on Wikipedia, in a famous Haitian etnology book, in the fantasy horror film Wes Craven adapted from it, and in this in-depth article.
  • Since we’re talking books, have you already invested your $3 for The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016? Thirty Bizzarro Bazar articles in kindle format, and the satisfaction of supporting this blog, keeping it free as it is and always will be. Ok, end of the commercial break.
  • Under a monastery in Rennes, France, more than 1.380 bodies have been found, dating from 14th to 18th Century. One of them belonged to noblewoman Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac; along with her corpse, in the casket, was found her husband’s heart, sealed in a lead lock box. The research on these burials, recently published, could revolutionize all we know about mummification during the Renaissance.

  • While we’re on the subject, here’s a great article on some of the least known mummies in Italy: the Mosampolo mummies (Italian language).
  • Regarding a part of the Italian patrimony that seldom comes under the spotlight, BBC Culture issued a good post on the Catacombs of Saint Gaudiosus in Naples, where frescoes show a sort of danse macabre but with an unsettling ‘twist’: the holes that can be seen where a figure’s face should be, originally harbored essicated heads and real skulls.

  • Now for a change of scenario. Imagine a sort of Blade Runner future: a huge billboard, the incredible size of 1 km², is orbiting around the Earth, brightening the night with its eletric colored lights, like a second moon, advertising some carbonated drink or the last shampoo. We managed to avoid all this for the time being, but that isn’t to say that someone hasn’t already thought of doing it. Here’s the Wiki page on space advertising.
  • Since we are talking about space, a wonderful piece The Coming Amnesia speculates about a future in which the galaxies will be so far from each other that they will no longer be visible through any kind of telescope. This means that the inhabitants of the future will think the only existing galaxy is their own, and will never come to theorize something like the Big Bang. But wait a second: what if something like that had already happened? What if some fundamental detail, essential to the understanding of the nature of cosmos, had already, forever disappeared, preventing us from seeing the whole picture?
  • To intuitively teach what counterpoint is, Berkeley programmer Stephen Malinowski creates graphics where distinct melodic lines have different colors. And even without knowing anything about music, the astounding complexity of a Bach organ fugue becomes suddenly clear:

  • In closing, I advise you to take 10 minutes off to immerse yourself in the fantastic and poetic atmosphere of Goutte d’Or, a French-Danish stop-motion short directed by Christophe Peladan. The director of this ironic story of undead pirates, well aware he cannot compete with Caribbean blockbusters, makes a virtue of necessity and allows himself some very French, risqué malice.

Ghost Marriages

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.

Lanterns of the Dead

lanterne-des-morts-antigny

In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.

Lanterne-Ciron-1

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Saint-Goussaud_(Creuse,_fr)_lanterne_des_morts

Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).

lanterne

A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.

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But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.

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One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.

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Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

Capsula Mundi

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.

Smoked mummies

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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“.

(Thanks, batisfera!)

The witch girl of Albenga

And maybe it is for revenge, maybe out of fear
Or just plain madness, but all along
You are the one who suffers the most
If you want to fly, they drag you down
And if a witch hunt begins,
Then you are the witch.

(Edoardo Bennato, La fata, 1977)

Saint Calocero, Albenga. 15th Century.
A 13-year-old girl was being buried near the church. But the men who were lowering her down decided to arrange her face down, so that her features were sealed by dirt. They did so to prevent her from getting up, and raising back to life. So that her soul could not sneak off her mouth and haunt those places. They did so, ultimately, because that little girl scared them to death.
Not far from there, another woman’s body was lying in a deep pit. Her skeleton was completely burned, and over her grave, the men placed a huge quantity of heavy stones, so she could not climb out of her tomb. Because women like her, everybody knew, were bound to wake up from the dead.

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The “witch girl of Albenga”, and a second female skeleton showing deep signs of burning, are two exceptional findings brought to light last year by a team from the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology, directed by Professor Philippe Pergola and coordinated by archeologist Stefano Roascio and Elena Dellù. Scholars were particularly puzzled by the proximity of these two anomalous burials to the ancient church which hosted the relics of martyr Saint Calocero: if these two women were considered “dangerous” or “damned”, why were they inhumed in a privileged burial ground, surely coveted by many?

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One explanation could be that burying them there was a “sign of submission to the Church”. But there is still extensive analysis to be conducted on the remains, and already skeletons are revealing some clues which could shine a light on this completely forgotten story. Why would a child, not even 60 inches tall, instill such a deep fear in her fellow citizens?
Researchers found out small holes in her skull, which could show she suffered from severe anemia and scurvy. These pathologies could involve fainting, sudden bleeding and epileptic fits; all symptoms that, at the time, could have been easily interpreted as demonic possession.
A possible kinship between the two women has still to be confirmed, but both skeletons seem to show signs of metopism, a genetic condition affecting the suture of the frontal bones.
According to radiocarbon dating, the burials date back to a period between 1440 and 1530 AD – when the infamous witch hunts had already begun.

english-witches-making-a-spell-1489-engraving-b-w-photoIn 1326, the papal bull Super illius specula by Pope John XXII set the basis for witch hunts: as incredible as it may sound, until then intellctuals and theologists had dismissed the idea of a “commerce with the Devil” as a mere superstition, that had to be eradicated.

Therefore in those churches they are given custody of priests have to constantly predicate to God’s people that these things are completely false. […] Who has never experienced going out of one’s body during his sleep, or to have night visions and to see, while sleeping, things he had never seen while wide awake? Who could be so dull or foolish as to believe that all these things which happen in the spirit, could also happen in the body?

(Canon episcopi, X Century)

Instead, starting from the XIV Century, even the intelligentsia was convinced that witches were real, and thus began the fight not just against heresy, but also against witchcraft, a persecution the Church entrusted to mendicant orders (Dominicans and Franciscans) and which would last over four centuries. Following the publishing of Malleus Maleficarum (1487), an actual handbook about witchcraft repression, the trials increased, ironically in conjunction with the Renaissance, up until the Age of Enlightenment. The destiny of the “witch girl” of Albenga has to be framed in this complex historical period: it is not a real mystery, as some newspapers have claimed, but rather another tragic human story, its details vanishing in time. Hopefully at least a small part of it will be reconstructed, little by little, by the international team of researchers who are now working on the San Calocero excavations.

(Thanks, Silvano!)

Death Salon: Mütter Museum

The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?

I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?

Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.

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The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.

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Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.

The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.

And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.

Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).

Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.

Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.

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Death tells us some incredible stories
Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.

Death is a dialogue
Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).

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Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead.
David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.

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Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.

My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.

Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.

Death 2.0

Considerations about death in the age of social media

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Take a look at the above Top Chart.
Blackbird is a Beatles song originally published in the 1968 White Album.
Although Paul McCartney wrote it 46 years ago, last week the song topped the iTunes charts in the Rock genre. Why?
The answer is below:

Italian articles about “daddy Blackbird”.

Chris Picco lives in California: he lost his wife Ashley, who died prematurely giving birth to litle Lennon. On November 12 a video appeared on YouTube showing Chris singing Blackbird before the incubator where his son was struggling for life; the child died just four days after birth.
The video went immediately viral, soon reaching 15 million views, bouncing from social neworks to newspapers and viceversa, with great pariticipation and a flood of sad emoticons and moving comments. This is just the last episode in a new, yet already well-established tendency of public exhibitions of suffering and mourning.

Brittany Maynard (1984-2014), terminally ill, activist for assisted suicide rights.

A recent article by Kelly Conaboy, adressing the phenomenon of tragic videos and stories going viral, uses the expression grief porn: these videos may well be a heart-felt, sincere display to begin with, but they soon become pure entertainment, giving the spectator an immediate and quick adrenaline rush; once the “emotional masturbation” is over, once our little tear has been shed, once we’ve commented and shared, we feel better. We close the browser, and go on with our lives.
If the tabloid genre of grief porn, Conaboy stresses out, is as old as sexual scandals, until now it was only limited to particularly tragic, violent, extraordinary death accounts; the internet, on the other hand, makes it possible to expose common people’s private lives. These videos could be part of a widespread exhibitionism/vouyeurism dynamics, in which the will to show off one’s pain is matched by the users’ desire to watch it — and to press the “Like” button in order to prove their sensitivity.

During the Twentieth Century we witnessed a collective removal of death. So much has been written about this removal process, there is no need to dwell on it. The real question is: is something changing? What do these new phenomenons tell us about our own relationship with death? How is it evolving?

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If death as a real, first-hand experience still remains a sorrowful mystery, a forbidden territory encompassing both the reality of the dead body (the true “scandal”) and the elaboration of grief (not so strictly coded as it once was), on the other hand we are witnessing an unprecedented pervasiveness of the representation of death.
Beyond the issues of commercialization and banalization, we have to face an ever more unhibited presence of death images in today’s society: from skulls decorating bags, pins, Tshirts as well as showing up in modern art Museums, to death becoming a communication/marketing/propaganda tool (terrorist beheadings, drug cartels execution videos, immense websites archiving raw footage of accidents, homicides and suicides). All of this is not death, it must be stressed, it’s just its image, its simulacrum — which doesn’t even require a narrative.
Referring to it as “death pornography” does make sense, given that these representations rely on what is in fact the most exciting element of classic pornography: it is what Baudrillard called hyper-reality, an image so realistic that it surpasses, or takes over, reality. (In porn videos, think of viewpoints which would be “impossibile” during the actual intercourse, think of HD resolution bringing out every detail of the actors’ skin, of 3D porn, etc. — this is also what happens with death in simulacrum.)

Damien Hirst poses with his famous For the love of God.

We can now die a million times, on the tip of a cursor, with every click starting a video or loading a picture. This omnipresence of representations of death, on the other hand, might not be a sign of an obscenity-bound, degenerated society, but rather a natural reaction and metabolization of last century’s removal. The mystery of death still untouched, its obscenity is coming apart (the obscene being brought back “on scene”) until it becomes an everyday image. To continue the parallelism with pornography, director Davide Ferrario (in his investigative book Guardami. Storie dal porno) wrote that witnessing a sexual intercourse, as a guest on an adult movie set, was not in the least exciting for him; but as soon as he looked into the camera viewfinder, everything changed and the scene became more real. Even some war photographers report that explosions do not seem real until they observe them through the camera lens. It is the dominion of the image taking over concrete objects, and if in Baudrillard’s writings this historic shift was described in somewhat apocalyptic colors, today we understand that this state of things — the imaginary overcoming reality — might not be the end of our society, but rather a new beginning.

Little by little our society is heading towards a global and globalized mythology. Intelligence — at least the classic idea of a “genius”, an individual achieving extraordinary deeds on his own — is becoming an outdated myth, giving way to the super-conscience of the web-organism, able to work more and more effectively than the single individual. There will be less and less monuments to epic characters, if this tendency proves durable, less and less heroes. More and more innovations and discoveries will be ascribable to virtual communities (but is there a virtuality opposing reality any more?), and the merit of great achievements will be distributed among a net of individuals.

In much the same way, death is changing in weight and significance.
Preservation and devotion to human remains, although both well-established traditions, are already being challenged by a new and widespread recycling sensitivity, and the idea of ecological reuse basically means taking back decomposition — abhorred for centuries by Western societies, and denied through the use of caskets preventing the body from touching the dirt. The Resurrection of the flesh, the main theological motivation behind an “intact” burial, is giving way to the idea of composting, which is a noble concept in its own right. Within this new perspective, respect for the bodies is not exclusively expressed through devotion, fear towards the bones or the inviolability of the corpse; it gives importance to the body’s usefulness, whether through organ transplant, donation to science, or reduction of its pollution impact. Destroying the body is no longer considered a taboo, but rather an act of generosity towards the environment.

At the same time, this new approach to death is slowly getting rid of the old mysterious, serious and dark overtones. Macabre fashion, black tourism or the many death-related entertainment and cultural events, trying to raise awareness about these topics (for example the London Month of the Dead, or the seminal Death Salon), are ways of dealing once and for all with the removal. Even humor and kitsch, as offensive as they might seem, are necessary steps in this transformation.

Human ashes pressed into a vinyl.

Human ashes turned into a diamond.

And so the internet is daily suggesting a kind of death which is no longer censored or denied, but openly faced, up to the point of turning it into a show.
In respect to the dizzying success of images of suffering and death, the word voyeurism is often used. But can we call it voyeurism when the stranger’s gaze is desired and requested by the “victims” themselves, for instance by terminally ill people trying to raise awareness about their condition, to leave a testimony or simply to give a voice to their pain?

Jennifer Johnson, madre di due bambini e malata terminale, nell'ultimo video prima della morte.

Jennifer Johnson, mother of two children, in her last video before she died (2012).

The exhibition of difficult personal experiences is a part of our society’s new expedient to deal with death and suffering: these are no longer taboos to be hidden and elaborated in the private sphere, but feelings worth sharing with the entire world. If at the time of big extended families, in the first decades of ‘900, grief was “spread” over the whole community, and in the second half of the century it fell back on the individual, who was lacking the instruments to elaborate it, now online community is offering a new way of allocation of suffering. Condoleances and affectionate messages can be received by perfect strangers, in a new paradigm of “superficial” but industrious solidarity.
Chris Picco, “daddy Blackbird”, certainly does not complain about the attention the video brought to him, because the users generosity made it possible for him to raise the $ 200.000 needed to cover medical expenses.

I could never articulate how much your support and your strength and your prayers and your emails and your Facebook messages and your text messages—I don’t know how any of you got my number, but there’s been a lot of me just, ‘Uh, okay, thank you, um.’ I didn’t bother going into the whole, ‘I don’t know who you are, but thank you.’ I just—it has meant so much to me, and so when I say ‘thank you’ I know exactly what you mean.

On the other end of the PC screen is the secret curiosity of those who watch images of death. Those who share these videos, more or less openly enjoying them. Is it really just “emotional masturbation”? Is this some obscene and morbid curiosity?
I personally don’t think there is such a thing as a morbid — that is, pathological — curiosity. Curiosity is an evolutionary tool which enables us to elaborate strategies for the future, and therefore it is always sane and healthy. If we examine voyeurism under this light, it turns out to be a real resource. When cars slow down at the sight of an accident, it’s not always in hope of seeing blood and guts: our brain is urging us to slow down because it needs time to investigate the situation, to elaborate what has happened, to understand what went on there. That’s exactly what the brain is wired to do — inferring data which might prove useful in the future, should we find ourselves in a similar situation.road-accidents

Accordingly, the history of theater, literature and cinema is full to the brim with tragedy, violence, disasters: the interest lies in finding out how the characters will react to the difficulties they come about. We still need the Hero’s Journey, we still need to discover how he’s going to overcome the tests he finds along the way, and to see how he will solve his problems. As kids, we carefully studied our parents to learn the appropriate response to every situation, and as adults our mind keeps amassing as much detail as possible, to try and control future obstacles.

By identifying with the father playing a sweet song to his dying son, we are confronting ourselves. “What is this man feeling? What would I do in such a predicament? Would I be able to overcome terror in this same way? Would this strategy work for me?”
The construction of our online persona comes only at a later time, when the video is over. Then it becomes important to prove to our contacts and followers that we are humane and sympathetic, that we were deeply moved, and so begins the second phase, with all the expressions of grief, the (real or fake) tears, the participation. This new paradigma, this modern kind of mourning, requires little time and resources, but it could work better than we think (again, see the success of Mr. Picco’s fund-raising campaing). And this sharing of grief is only possible on the account of the initial curiosity that made us click on that video.

And what about those people who dig even deeper into the dark side of the web, with its endless supply of images of death, and watch extremly gruesome videos?
The fundamental stimulus behind watching a video of a man who gets, let’s say, eaten alive by a crocodile, is probably the very same. At a basic lavel, we are always trying to acquire useful data to respond to the unknown, and curiosity is our weapon of defense and adaptation against an uncertain future; a future in which, almost certainly, we won’t have to fight off an alligator, but we’ll certainly need to face suffering, death and the unexpected.
The most shocking videos sometimes lure us with the promise of showing what is normally forbidden or censored: how does the human body react to a fall from a ten story building? Watching the video, it’s as if we too are falling by proxy; just like, by proxy but in a more acceptable context, we can indentify with the tragic reaction of a father watching his child die.

A weightlifter is lifting a barbell. Suddenly his knee snaps and collapses. We scream, jump off the seat, feel a stab of pain. We divert our eyes, then look again, and each time we go over the scene in our mind it’s like we are feeling a little bit of the athlete’s pain (a famous neurologic study on empathy proved that, in part, this is exactly what is going on). This is not masochism, nor a strange need to be upset: anticipation of pain is considered one of the common psychological strategies to prepare for it, and watching a video is a cheap and harmless solution.

In my opinion, the curiosity of those who watch images of suffering and death should not be stigmatized as “sick”, as it is a completely natural instinct. And this very curiosity is behind the ever growing offer of such images, as it is also what allows suffering people to stage their own condition.

The real innovations of these last few years have been the legitimization of death as a public representation, and the collectivization of the experience of grief and mourning — according to the spirit of open confrontation and sharing, typical of social media. These features will probably get more and more evident on Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms: even today, many people suffering from an illness are choosing to post real-time updates on their therapy, in fact opening the curtain over a reality (disease and hospital care) which has been concealed for a long time.

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western Code / Your private life will suddenly explode, sang Leonard Cohen in The Future. The great poet’s views expressed in the song are pessimistic, if not apocalyptc, as you would expect from a Twentieth century exponent. Yet it looks like this voluntary (and partial) sacrifice of the private sphere is proving to be an effective way to fix the general lack of grief elaboration codes. We talk ever more frequently about death and disease, and until now it seems that the benefits of this dialogue are exceeding the possible stress from over-exposure (see this article).

What prompted me to write this post is the feeling, albeit vague and uncertain, that a transition is taking place, before our eyes, even if it’s still all too cloudy to be clearly outlined; and of course, such a transformation cannot be immune to excesses, which inevitably affect any crisis. We shall see if these unprecedented, still partly unconscious strategies prove to be an adequate solution in dealing with our ultimate fate, or if they are bound to take other, different forms.
But something is definitely changing.