Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 9

In the 9th episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the incredible history of tonic water; a touching funerary artifact; the mysterious “singing sand” of the desert. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]

If you like this episode please consider subscribing to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Lanterns of the Dead

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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.

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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).

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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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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!)

Grief and sacrifice: abscence carved into flesh

Some of you probably know about sati (or suttee), the hindu self-immolation ritual according to which a widow was expected to climb on her husband’s funeral pire to be burned alive, along his body. Officially forbidden by the English in 1829, the practice declined over time – not without some opposition on behalf of traditionalists – until it almost entirely disappeared: if in the XIX Century around 600 sati took place every year, from 1943 to 1987 the registered cases were around 30, and only 4 in the new millennium.

The sacrifice of widows was not limited to India, in fact it appeared in several cultures. In his Histories, Herodotus wrote about a people living “above the Krestons”, in Thracia: within this community, the favorite among the widows of a great man was killed over his grave and buried with him, while the other wives considered it a disgrace to keep on living.

Among the Heruli in III Century a.D., it was common for widows to hang themselves over their husband’s burial ground; in the XVIII Century, on the other side of the ocean, when a Natchez chief died his wives (often accompanied by other volunteers) followed him by committing ritual suicide. At times, some mothers from the tribe would even sacrify their own newborn children, in an act of love so strong that women who performed it were treated with great honor and entered a higher social level. Similar funeral practices existed in other native peoples along the southern part of Mississippi River.

Also in the Pacific area, for instance in Fiji, there were traditions involving the strangling of the village chief’s widows. Usually the suffocation was carried out or supervised by the widow’s brother (see Fison’s Notes on Fijian Burial Customs, 1881).

The idea underlying these practices was that it was deemed unconcievable (or improper) for a woman to remain alive after her husband’s death. In more general terms, a leader’s death opened an unbridgeable void, so much so that the survivors’ social existence was erased.
If female self-immolation (and, less commonly, male self-immolation) can be found in various time periods and latitudes, the Dani tribe developed a one-of-a-kind funeral sacrifice.

The Dani people live mainly in Baliem Valley, the indonesian side of New Guinea‘s central highlands. They are now a well-known tribe, on the account of increased tourism in the area; the warriors dress with symbolic accessories – a feather headgear, fur bands, a sort of tie made of seashells specifying the rank of the man wearing it, a pig’s fangs fixed to the nostrils and the koteka, a penis sheath made from a dried-out gourd.
The women’s clothing is simpler, consisting in a skirt made from bark and grass, and a headgear made from multicolored bird feathers.

Among this people, according to tradition when a man died the women who were close or related to him (wife, mother, sister, etc.) used to amputate one or more parts of their fingers. Today this custom no longer exists, but the elder women in the tribe still carry the marks of the ritual.

Allow me now a brief digression.

In Dino Buzzati‘s wonderful tale The Humps in the Garden (published in 1968 in La boutique del mistero), the protagonist loves to take long, late-night walks in the park surrounding his home. One evening, while he’s promenading, he stumbles on a sort of hump in the ground, and the following day he asks his gardener about it:

«What did you do in the garden, on the lawn there is some kind of hump, yesterday evening I stumbled on it and this morning as soon as the sun came up I saw it. It is a narrow and oblong hump, it looks like a burial mound. Will you tell me what’s happening?». «It doesn’t look like it, sir» said Giacomo the gardener «it really is a burial mound. Because yesterday, sir, a friend of yours has died».
It was true. My dearest friend Sandro Bartoli, who was twenty-one-years-old, had died in the mountains with his skull smashed.
«Are you trying to tell me» I said to Giacomo «that my friend was buried here?»
«No» he replied «your friend, Mr. Bartoli […] was buried at the foot of that mountain, as you know. But here in the garden the lawn bulged all by itself, because this is your garden, sir, and everything that happens in your life, sir, will have its consequences right here.»

Years go by, and the narrator’s park slowly fills with new humps, as his loved ones die one by one. Some bulges are small, other enormous; the garden, once flat and regular, at this point is completely packed with mounds appearing with every new loss.

Because this problem of humps in the garden happens to everybody, and every one of us […] owns a garden where these painful phenomenons take place. It is an ancient story repeating itself since the beginning of centuries, it will repeat for you too. And this isn’t a literary joke, this is how things really are.

In the tale’s final part, we discover that the protagonist is not a fictional character at all, and that the sorrowful metaphore refers to the author himself:

Naturally I also wonder if in someone else’s garden will one day appear a hump that has to do with me, maybe a second or third-rate little hump, just a slight pleating in the lawn, not even noticeable in broad daylight, when the sun shines from up high. However, one person in the world, at least one, will stumble on it. Perhaps, on the account of my bad temper, I will die alone like a dog at the end of an old and deserted hallway. And yet one person that evening will stub his toe on the little hump in the garden, and will stumble on it the following night too, and each time that person will think with a shred of regret, forgive my hopefulness, of a certain fellow whose name was Dino Buzzati.

Now, if I may risk the analogy, the humps in Buzzati’s garden seem to be poetically akin to the Dani women’s missing fingers. The latter represent a touching and powerful image: each time a loved one leaves us, “we lose a bit of ourselves”, as is often said – but here the loss is not just emotional, the absence becomes concrete. On the account of this physical expression of grief, fingerless women undoubtedly have a hard time carrying out daily tasks; and further bereavements lead to the impossibility of using their hands. The oldest women, who have seen many loved ones die, need help and assistance from the community. Death becomes a wound which makes them disabled for life.

Of course, at least from a contemporary perspective, there is still a huge stumbling block: the metaphore would be perfect if such a tradition concerned also men, who instead were never expected to carry out such extreme sacrifices. It’s the female body which, more or less voluntarily, bears this visible evidence of pain.
But from a more universal perspective, it seems to me that these symbols hold the certainty that we all will leave a mark, a hump in someone else’s garden. The pride with which Dani women show their mutilated hands suggests that one person’s passage inevitably changes the reality around him, conditioning the community, even “sculpting” the flesh of his kindreds. The creation of meaning in displays of grief also lies in reciprocity – the very tradition that makes me weep for the dead today, will ensure that tomorrow others will lament my own departure.

Regardless of the historical variety of ways in which this concept was put forth, in this awareness of reciprocity human beings seem to have always found some comfort, because it eventually means that we can never be alone.

Ischia’s creative graves

Art, construction and redemption

Post and pictures by our guestblogger Mario Trani

The island of Ischia, pearl of the Neapolitan Gulf, holds a secret.
It’s a sort of exaltation, a deviant behavior caused by the very limited living space or maybe by an instinctive desire of marking the territory: it’s the plague of frauca — the unauthorized construction, in infringement of all local building regulations.

The Ischian resident, in order to be (or to think of himself as) respected, has to build, construct, erect.
It might be just a screed, a dry stone wall, a second floor or a small living quarter for his son who’s about to get married. All rigorously unauthorized, these supplements to the house are built in disregard of those strict and suffocating rules he feels are killing his creativity; and which often force him to demolish what he so patiently constructed.

No family is without an expert in this field, and often more than one member is mastro fraucatore or mezza cucchiara (nicknames for a master builder).
But the free zone, the real no man’s land where all the islanders’ construction dreams come true is the graveyard.

To walk through the avenues of the Ischia Municipal Cemetery means to discover surprising tombs the relatives of the deceased decorated with materials found around the island: lava stones from the volcanic Mount Epomeo, polished rocks from the many beaches, sea shells and scallops; stones from the Olmitello creek or pizzi bianchi of carsic origin.

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Other tombs incorporate remainings and leftovers from unauthorized constructions, such as unused bricks or decorated floor tiles.

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No grave is similar to another, in this array of different materials and colors. But there is a specific niche of funeral art, reserved to those who worked as fishermen.
To honor the deceased who, during their lifetime, bravely defied the sea for the catch of the day, granting the survival and well-being of their family, a peculiar grave is built in the shape of a gozzo, the typical Ischian fishing boat.

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This is a touching way of saying a last goodbye, and looking at these hand-crafted graves one cannot help but appreciate the genuine creativity of these artisans. But the tombs seem to be the ultimate, ironic redemption of the heirs of Typhon: a payback for that building urge, that longing for cement and concrete which was constantly repressed during their lifetime.

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The last embrace

They found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrézarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

(V. Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831)

Thus, with Quasimodo holding his Esmeralda for eternity, ends Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) by Victor Hugo.

There is something awfully sad yet sublime in the image of two skeletons fixed in a last embrace: two lovers giving shelter to each other as the definitive cold makes its way, seemingly embodying the romantic ideal of love conquering death. “When you die, you always die alone“, sang Fabrizio De André; and yet, these remains seem to have experienced an enviable departure, as it grants the privilege of an extreme and intimate moment of inner thoughtfulness.

Earlier this year, in Greece, on the Diros archeological excavation site, two hugging skeletons were found: a man reclined behind a woman. These remains date back to 3.800 B.C., but even if “double” burials are quite rare, the one in Diros is actually not the only nor the most ancient one.

At the Archeological Museum in Mantua you can admire the so-called Lovers of Valdaro. The datation is neolithic, around 6.000 years ago. Their fetal position is typical of his kind of burials, but the two were layed down together.

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And yet Mantua’s record of the “World’s most ancient lovers” is defied by the skeletons found in 2007 in the Turkish region of Diyarbakir, dating back to 8.000 years ago. They too are suspended in this final embrace for which we might never know the actual reason, as their love story flourished and ended before recorded History.

Once again in Greece, in the region of Agios Vasileios, a few kilometers south of Sparta, two skeletons came to light in a similar position, and they date back to 1.600-1.5000 B.C.: these two lovers are laying on their side, and the man’s hand sustains the woman’s head in a delicate gesture, unaltered after more than three millennia.

Among the 600 tombs excavated in the Syberian village of Staryi Tartas and dating back to the Andronovo Culture, some dozens feature double burials, or even family burials. The archeologists can only guess the origin these graves: are these traces of sacrificial rites, or were these collective graves meant for the souls to travel together to the afterlife?

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In the archeological site of Teppe Hasanlu, Iran, two other lovers were found lying face to face inside a brick bin. Researchers believe the two hid inside that bin to escape the ancient citadel’s destruction, occured at the end of IX Century B.C.; as they conforted each other, amidst the cries of massacre, they probably died by asphyxiation.

Lovers clinged to one another even during another kind of destruction: the terrible eruption of Pompeii in 79.B.C. sealed under the ashes some couples in the act of protecting each other.

The “lovers of Modena”, located some years ago while building an apartment block, date back to V-VI Century A.D. The two are holding hands, and the woman looks towards the man; it is believed that he was staring back at her, until the cushion under his head deteriorated, misplacing the skull.

More recent, but certainly not less striking, are the skeletons found in Cluji-Napoca, Romania. The man and woman, who lived between 1.400 and 1.550, were buried fcing each other, holding hands. According to the first reconstructions, it seems the man might have died in an accident or a violent fight (his sternum was fractured by a blunt objet), while the woman might have died of a broken heart.

We would like to end with the most touching, and recent, example. In Roermond, Netherlands, there are two really exceptional graves: those of Infantry Colonel J.W.C. van Gorcum and his wife J.C.P.H van Aefferden. Married in 1842, they stayed together for 38 years, until in 1880 the Colonel died, and was buried in the protestant lot of the town cemetery. His wife, who was catholic, knew she could not be buried beside him; she decreeted that her remains were not to be interred in her family tomb, but as close as possible to her husband’s – just on the other side of the wall dividing the prostestant section from the catholic one.

Since she died, in 1888, the two monuments have been holding hands, over the barrier which tried to keep them separate, in vain.

Caitlin Doughty and the Good Death

We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.

Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.

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Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?

From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.

Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.

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Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.

As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.

Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?

It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it.  We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.

Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?

No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain.  You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.

“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?

“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.

In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?

Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.

Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?

The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.

By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?

There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.

Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?

First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.

The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?

This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!

Reference sites:
The Order of the Good Death
Death Salon
Caitlin Doughty’s Youtube channel and her book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.

The elephants’ graveyard

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In The Lion King (1994), the famous Disney animated film, young lion Simba is tricked by the villain, Scar, and finds himself with his friend Nala in the unsettling elephants’ graveyard: hundreds of immense pachyderm skeletons reach the horizon. In this evocative location, the little cub will endure the ambush of three ravenous hyenas.

The setting of this action-packed scene, in fact, does not come from the screenwriters’ imagination. An elephants’ graveyard had already been shown in Trader Horn (1931), and in some Tarzan flicks, featuring the iconic Johnny Weissmuller.
And the most curious fact is that the existence of a mysterious and gigantic collective cemetery, where for thousands of years the elephants have been retiring to die, had been debated since the middle of XIX Century.

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This legendary place, described as some sort of secret sanctuary, hidden in the deepest recesses of Black Africa, is one of the most enduring myths of the golden age of explorations and big-game hunting. It was a true African Eldorado, where the courageous adventurer could find an unspeakable treasure: besides the elephants’ skeletons, the cave (or the inaccessible valley) would hold such an immense quantity of ivory that anyone finding it would have become insanely rich.

But finding a similar place, as every respectable legend demands, was no easy task. Those who saw it, either never came back from it… or were not able to locate the entrance anymore. Tales were told about searchers who found the tracks of an old and sick elephant, who had departed from the herd, and followed them for days in hope that the animal would bring them to the hidden graveyard; but they then realized they had been led in a huge circle by the deceptive elephant, and found themselves right where they started.

According to other versions, the elusive ossuary was regarded as a sacred place by indigenous people. Anyone who approached it, even accidentally, would have been attacked by the dreadful guardians of the cemetery, a pack of warriors lead by a shaman who protected the entrance to the sanctuary.

The elephants’ graveyard legend, which was mentioned even by Livingstone and circulated in Europe until the first decades of the XX Century, is indeed a legend. But where does it come from? Is it possible that this myth is somewhat grounded in reality?

First of all, there really are some places where high concentrations of elephant bones can be found, as if several animals had traveled there, to a single, precise spot to let themselves die.

The most plausible explanation can be found, surprisingly enough, in dentition. Elephants actually have only two sets of teeth: molars and incisors. Tusks are nothing more than modified incisors, slowly and incessantly growing, whose length is regulated by constant wear. On the contrary, molars are cyclically replaced: during the animal’s lifespan, reaching fifty or sixty years of age in a natural environment, new teeth grow on the back of the mandible and push forward the older ones.

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An elephant can have up to a maximum of six molar cycles during its whole existence.
But if the animal lives long enough, which is to say several years after the last cycle occurred, there is no replacement and its wore-down dentition ceases to be functional. These old elephants then find it difficult to feed on shrubs and harder plants, and therefore move to areas where the presence of a water spring guarantees softer and more nutrient herbs. The weariness of old age brings them to prefer regions featuring higher vegetation density, where they need less to struggle to find food. According to some researchers, the muddy waters of a spring could bring relief to the suffering and dental decay of these aging pachyderms; the malnourished animals would then begin to drink more and more water, and this could actually lead to a worsening of their health by diluting the glucose in their blood.
Anyways, the search for water and a more suitable vegetation could draw several sick elephants towards the same spring. This hypothesis could explain the findings of bone stacks in relatively circumscribed areas.

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A second explanation for the legend, if a sadder one, could be connected to ivory commerce and smuggling. It’s not rare, still nowadays, for some “elephants’ graveyards” to be found — except they turn out to be massacre sites, where the animals were hunted and mutilated of their precious tusks by poachers. Similar findings, back in the days, could have suggested the idea that the herd had collected there on purpose, to wait for the end to come.

But the stories about a hidden cemetery could also have risen from the observation of elephants’ behavior when facing the death of a counterpart.
These animals are in fact thought to be among the most “intelligent” mammals, in that they show quite complex social relations within the group, elaborate behavioral characteristics, and often display surprising altruistic conduct even towards other species. An emblematic example is that of one domestic indian elephant, employed in following a truck which was carrying logs; at the master’s sign, the animal lifted one of the logs from the trailer and placed it in the appropriate hole, excavated earlier on. When the elephant came to a specific hole, it refused to follow the order; the master came down to investigate, and he found a dog sleeping at the bottom of the hole. Only when the dog was taken out of the hole did the elephant drive the log into it (reported by C. Holdrege in Elephantine Intelligence).

When an elephant dies — especially if it’s the matriarch — the other members of the herd remain around the carcass, standing in silence for days. They gently touch it with their trunks, as if staging an actual mourning ritual; they take turns to leave the body to find water and food, then get back to the place, always keeping guard of the body. They sometimes carry out a sort of rudimentary burial practice, hiding and covering the carcass with dry twigs and torn branches. Even when encountering the bones of an unknown deceased elephant, they can spend hours touching and scattering the remains.

Ethologists obviously debate over these behaviors: the animals could be attracted and confused by the ivory in the remains, as ivory is used as a socially fundamental communication device; according to some researches, they show sometimes the same “stupor” for birds’ remains or even simple pieces of wood. But they seem to be undoubtedly fascinated by their counterparts, wounded or dead.

Being the only animals, other than men and some primate species, who show this kind of participation in death and dying, elephants have always been associated with human emotions — particularly by those indigenous people who live in strict contact with them. There has always been an important symbolic bond between man and elephant: thus unfolds the last, and deepest level of the story.

The hidden graveyard legend, besides its undeniable charm, is also a powerful allegory of voluntary death, the path the elder takes in order to die in solitude and dignity. Releasing his community from the weight of old age, and leaving behind a courageous and strong image, he proceeds towards the sacred place where he will be in contact with his ancestors’ spirits, who are now ready to honorably welcome him as one of their own.70

Post inspired by this article.

Endocannibalismo

 Che cos’è il cannibalismo, se non il riconoscimento
del “valore” dell’altro, a tal punto da doverlo ingoiare?

(Francesco Remotti, Identità, 2013)

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Mangiare le carni di un essere umano è una pratica antica come il mondo, dallo stratificato e complesso valore simbolico.
In generale, dalla selva di teorie antropologiche o psicanalitiche al riguardo, non tutte condivisibili, emerge un elemento fondamentale, ossia la credenza magico-spirituale di poter assimilare attraverso il banchetto antropofago le qualità del morto. Dall’Africa all’Amazzonia alle Indie, divorare un valoroso nemico ucciso o fatto prigioniero in battaglia era certo un modo per vendicarsi, per negare l’alterità (e per contro, così facendo, rinforzare la propria identità culturale); ma a questo si unisce la speranza di acquisire il suo coraggio e la sua forza. Quest’idea è corroborata dal fatto che lo stesso meccanismo di transfert sarebbe stato presente anche nei riguardi della selvaggina, per cui alcune tribù del Sudamerica non cacciavano animali che si muovevano lentamente per timore di perdere le forze dopo essersene cibati.

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Il cannibalismo, quasi universalmente, era poi ritualizzato e regolato da divieti precisi: l’identificazione fra vivi e defunti avveniva su diversi livelli, e ad esempio fra i Tupinamba chi aveva ucciso un determinato nemico non poteva assolutamente mangiare le sue carni, mentre gli era consentito nutrirsi dei corpi delle vittime dei suoi compagni guerrieri; rispetto a tutti gli altri pasti quotidiani, spesso l’agape cannibalesca era riservata ai soli guerrieri, avveniva di notte in speciali luoghi deputati allo scopo, e via dicendo. Tutto questo dimostra la prevalenza della significazione simbolica sull’effettiva necessità alimentare – l’idea che il cannibalismo potesse essere la soluzione ad una dieta con scarso apporto proteico, che pure alcuni autori sostengono, sembra secondaria. Nei contesti rituali, l’atto di consumare il cadavere di un proprio simile è eminentemente magico, e spesso superfluo ai fini della sopravvivenza.
I Tupì-Guaranì, ad esempio, bollivano le interiora dell’ucciso, ottenendo un brodo chiamato mingau che veniva distribuito a tutta la tribù, ospiti e alleati inclusi. Il reale apporto nutritivo fornito dalla carne umana, suddivisa fra decine e decine di persone, in questo caso era del tutto trascurabile.

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Ancora più interessante sotto il profilo simbolico si presenta l’endocannibalismo, o allelofagia, vale a dire il cannibalismo verso individui appartenenti al proprio gruppo sociale.
Il primo a parlarne fu Erodoto nelle sue Storie (III,99):

Altre genti dell’India, localizzabili più verso oriente, sono nomadi e si nutrono di carni crude: si chiamano Padei; ed ecco quali sono, a quanto si racconta, le loro abitudini: quando uno di loro si ammala, uomo o donna che sia, viene ucciso; se è uomo, lo uccidono gli amici più intimi sostenendo che una volta consunto dalla malattia le sue carni per loro andrebbero perdute; ovviamente l’ammalato nega di essere tale, ma gli altri non accettano le sue proteste, lo uccidono e se lo mangiano. Se è una donna a cadere inferma, le donne a lei più legate si comportano esattamente come gli uomini. Del resto sacrificano chiunque giunga alla soglia della vecchiaia e se lo mangiano. Ma a dire il vero non sono molti ad arrivare a tarda età, visto che eliminano prima chiunque incappi in una malattia.

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Se questa descrizione presenta l’endocannibalismo sotto una luce cinica e spietata, la maggior parte delle tradizioni in realtà vi ricorrevano in maniera ritualistica. In linea generale, infatti, soltanto gli estranei o i nemici venivano mangiati per fame o come forma di violazione; nel caso di defunti appartenenti al proprio clan le cose si facevano più complesse. Il capo tribù dei Jukun dell’Africa Occidentale, ad esempio, mangiava il cuore del suo predecessore per assorbirne le virtù; in molti altri casi l’assunzione delle carni umane era trattata come una vera e propria forma di rispetto per i defunti. Per noi risulta forse difficile accettare che vi sia della pietà filiale nell’atto di mangiare il corpo del proprio padre (patrofagia), ma possiamo comunque intuire la portata simbolica di questo gesto: il morto viene assimilato, e diventa parte vivente della sua progenie. Gli antenati, in questo modo, non sono degli spiriti lontani la cui protezione va invocata con riti e preghiere, ma sono verità tangibile e pulsante nella carne della propria stirpe.

Piuttosto significativo in quest’ambito di discussione risulta il caso dei Tapuya brasiliani, presso i quali talvolta, quando un padre invecchiava al punto da non potere più seguire gli spostamenti del gruppo, intrapresi solitamente per soddisfare i bisogni dei vari nuclei familiari, chiedeva ai parenti stretti di mangiare le sue carni e continuare così a vivere nei discendenti, dal momento che le sue precarie condizioni fisiche avrebbero costituito un ostacolo per l’intera comunità. A tale richiesta dunque il figlio maggiore concedeva il suo assenso ed esternava il suo dolore innalzando grida di sgomento di fronte ai propri consanguinei.
Dopo la morte per cause naturali dell’anziano del gruppo, il suo corpo veniva arrostito nel corso di una complessa cerimonia accuratamente eseguita e l’intera famiglia, unitamente alla comunità, ne divorava le parti, accompagnando il pasto comune con urla e lamenti, alternati a racconti delle gesta del defunto. Ossa e cranio venivano frantumati e bruciati, mentre il resto del corpo era disposto in un grande recipiente di terracotta e quindi sotterrato.
Sembra che i bambini invece fossero mangiati soltanto in caso di estrema necessità o di pericolo e unicamente dalla propria madre, oppure quando morivano per cause sconosciute; si pensava infatti di non potere offrire loro una tomba migliore del corpo nel quale si erano formati.

(L. Monferdini, Il cannibalismo, 2000)

Usanze similari erano diffuse in Africa e nel Sudamerica (Amazzonia, Valle di Cauca, ecc.) dove diverse tribù solevano nutrirsi delle ceneri dei familiari mescolate assieme a bevande fermentate. In diverse tradizioni, erano solo le ossa ad essere mangiate, una volta bruciata la carne. I Tariana e i Tucano del Brasile riesumavano la salma alcuni mesi dopo la sepoltura, arrostivano le carni fino a che non rimaneva soltanto lo scheletro, che poi veniva finemente triturato e aggiunto a una bevanda destinata al consumo dell’intera comunità.

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Gli Yanomami del Venezuela praticano questa forma di endocannibalismo delle ceneri ancora oggi. Il corpo del defunto viene in un primo momento avvolto in strati di foglie e portato lontano dal villaggio, nella foresta. Lì viene lasciato agli insetti per poco più di un mese, finché tutti i tessuti molli non sono scomparsi. Allora le ossa vengono raccolte, cremate, e le ceneri sono disciolte in una zuppa di banane distribuita a tutta la tribù. Se avanzano delle ceneri, queste possono essere conservate in un vaso fino all’anno successivo, quando per un giorno (il “giorno della memoria”) viene sollevato il divieto di parlare dei morti e, bevendo la zuppa, l’intero villaggio si riunisce per ricordare le vite e le gesta dei defunti.

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Ma questi esempi non dovrebbero suggerire l’erronea impressione che il cannibalismo sia stato appannaggio esclusivo delle popolazioni tribali del Sudamerica, dell’Oceania o dell’Africa. Recenti scoperte hanno mostrato come la pratica fosse diffusa nelle isole britanniche all’epoca dei Romani, negli Stati Uniti del Sud, e che le abitudini antropofaghe risalgono addirittura all’epoca degli ominidi di Neanderthal o a prima ancora (vedi Homo antecessor). I ritrovamenti di ossa con segni di cottura e raschiatura, e di feci umane fossili contenenti mioglobina (una proteina che si trova esclusivamente nel cuore e nei muscoli), sembrano confermare l’ipotesi che il cannibalismo sia esistito nel nostro passato in maniera molto più diffusa del previsto.

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Un team di esperti capitanati dal professor Michael Alpers della Curtin University of Technology, studiando nel 2003 le malattie da prioni, per capire in particolare perché una buona percentuale di persone in tutto il mondo ne sia immune, è arrivato alla conclusione che si deve ringraziare proprio il cannibalismo. Esaminando un gruppo di donne della tribù Fore della Papua Nuova Guinea, particolarmente resistenti alla patologia da prioni chiamata kuru, si è scoperto che il responsabile della protezione dalla malattia è un particolare gene “duplicato”: le persone che posseggono il doppio gene sono al riparo dal kuru, quelle che hanno un gene singolo sono a rischio. Tutte le femmine Fore dotate di questa specie di “anticorpo” avevano preso parte, dagli anni ’20 agli anni ’50, a banchetti cannibali durante la più disastrosa epidemia di encefalopatie da prioni. Alle donne e ai bambini era consentito di mangiare soltanto il cervello e gli organi interni dei defunti, mentre i maschi si dividevano la carne (non infetta dai prioni). In alcune comunità le donne furono quasi completamente decimate, ma quelle che sopravvissero svilupparono la seconda copia del gene in grado di salvarle.
Il fatto però che questo doppio gene sia piuttosto comune nella popolazione mondiale ha fatto ipotizzare ad Alpers che esso sia un lascito dell’antica diffusione del cannibalismo, o perlomeno dell’endocannibalismo ritualistico, su scala globale: un passato che accomunerebbe gran parte dell’umanità.

I morti in piedi

Le tradizioni funerarie, come qualsiasi altra espressione culturale, non sono fisse e immutabili ma si evolvono e variano a seconda dell’epoca e della sensibilità della società che le adotta. Non bisogna perciò stupirsi se anche nell’ambito delle pratiche di sepoltura si formano nuovi costumi, e in qualche caso delle vere e proprie mode.

È quello che succede da qualche anno nel bacino del Golfo del Messico, dove sta prendendo piede l’usanza dei muertos paraos (“morti in piedi”). Si tratta ancora di una nicchia all’interno della tradizione più classica, ma si contano già diversi casi di questa peculiare e fantasiosa attitudine nei confronti del cadavere di un defunto. Rintracciarne la storia può riservare alcune sorprese.

Il primo caso di muerto parao avvenne nel 2008 nell’isola di Porto Rico. Le spoglie di David Morales Colon, un giovane vittima di una sparatoria, per volere dei parenti vengono preparate nella camera ardente in maniera pittoresca: il cadavere è fissato sulla sua motocicletta preferita, come se stesse ancora sfrecciando a tutto gas sulla strada (l’avevamo segnalato in un vecchio post).

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Questo tipo di disposizione scenografica della salma non è, com’è intuibile, in alcun modo contemplata dalla legge, che prevede severe norme igieniche, in particolare in relazione alla vicinanza fra il pubblico e il cadavere. In effetti, sempre nel 2008, i responsabili delle pompe funebri passano qualche guaio giudiziario, soprattutto dopo che replicano l’exploit sul corpo di  Luis Angel Pantoja Medina, esposto in piedi nel salotto di famiglia per tutti e tre i giorni della veglia funebre.

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Ma è difficile imputare un vero e proprio reato agli imbalsamatori: si tratta, in definitiva, di un modo forse un po’ stravagante di onorare le passioni e gli ultimi voleri del defunto.
Nel frattempo le fotografie e i video realizzati nelle camere ardenti fanno il giro del mondo, complice la rete, e ci vuole poco perché l’idea prenda piede.

Quindi su internet compare la salma di Carlos Cabrera, alias El Che Cabrera, seduto come se stesse meditando sull’imminente rivoluzione, nel tentativo di dare un’estrema veste iconografica alla sua figura.

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Ed ecco il boxeur Christopher Rivera, le cui spoglie mortali sono fissate all’angolo di un ring, come se la morte non avesse minimamente intaccato il suo spirito battagliero: un guerriero pronto ad affrontare l’aldilà con forza e determinazione immutate.

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La moda dei muertos paraos sbarca a New Orleans. Qui “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, storico musicista e cantante jazz e blues, leader di una banda tradizionale di ottoni, decide che “nessuno guarderà il mio cadavere dall’alto in basso”. Si fa quindi imbalsamare in piedi, per l’estremo saluto.

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Allo stesso modo, lo scorso aprile la mondana Mary Cathryn “Mickey” Easterling, gran dama di New Orleans, è rimasta seduta – senza vita -, tra fiori, piume di struzzo, sigarette con bocchino, e tutto il suo usuale armamentario di seduzione, all’interno del Saenger Theatre.

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Il proprietario di una ditta di veicoli di pronto soccorso, deceduto quando un colpo di pistola è accidentalmente partito dall’arma di un suo collega, viene immortalato nell’atto di guidare un’autoambulanza.

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LO BELAN MANEJANDO EN AMBULANCIA 2 - Copia

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La moda conquista altri stati. Un biker di ben 82 anni, Bill Standley, viene seppellito in Ohio in una bara di plexiglas appositamente studiata, a cavallo della sua amata moto.

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Buried On Harley

APTOPIX Buried On Harley

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Ma da dove nasce questa moda? È una trovata degli ultimi anni, o sono esistiti dei precursori?
Se questo trend vi sembra moderno e originale, ricordiamo qui l’antesignano Willie “The Wimp” Stokes Jr., ganster e pappone di Chicago (figlio di “Flukey” Stokes Sr.) che nel 1984 venne esposto, e in seguito seppellito, all’interno di una bara a forma di Cadillac con banconote da 100$ nascoste sotto i suoi anelli con diamante.

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E viene spontaneao azzardare un parallelo, anche soltanto pensando al patrimonio che gli Stati Uniti hanno ereditato geneticamente e culturalmente dall’Africa, fra questo peculiare tipo di rapporto con la morte, e quello esibito dalle tribù Ga-Adangme del Ghana e del Togo.
In queste popolazioni dell’Africa, infatti, vigono dei pittoreschi costumi funebri: le bare vengono realizzate da falegnami esperti, ciascuna in una foggia che richiami i gusti personali o il lavoro del defunto. Le hall di queste pompe funebri assomigliano ad un laboratorio di un parco divertimenti: se un morto viveva di pesca, il suo sarcofago sarà a forma di pesce. L’operaio, invece, verrà sepolto in una bara a forma di martello. Se il trapassato indulgeva nell’alcol, la sua cassa avrà la forma di una bottiglia, se era un gran fumatore assomiglierà ad una sigaretta, e così via. Ecco quindi che anche qui, come nella moda dei muertos paraos, il funerale non è standardizzato e identico per tutti, ma personalizzato: le bare dei Ga-Adangme sono un colorato, vivace e simbolico viatico per l’aldilà, nel rispetto delle passioni e della vita del defunto, così come si è dipanata.

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Per noi, che ancora deponiamo i nostri morti in loculi “democraticamente” identici, orizzontali, nascosti alla vista, potrebbe quasi sembrare un insulto o una mancanza di rispetto verso il morto. Ma ogni funerale non è che un simbolo volto ad elaborare il lutto, e le modalità di consegna del defunto all’ “aldilà” mutano come e quando muta la cultura.

Così, non è detto che la moda non sbarchi anche sulle coste italiche. E il cadavere di una donna, seduta al suo posto preferito, con una birra in una mano e una sigaretta nell’altra, potrebbe in futuro sembrarci meno assurdo di quanto crediamo.

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(Grazie, ipnosarcoma!)

This Way Up

La quotidiana routine di due operatori funebri – sconvolta da una serie di improbabili eventi – non è mai stata così divertente come nel cortometraggio This Way Up (2008) diretto da Alan Smith e Adam Foulkes e vincitore di numerosi premi, fra cui la nomination agli Oscar 2009 come miglior corto di animazione. In questa folle e imprevedibile corsa contro il tempo, i toni macabri sono stemperati da un irresistibile umorismo nero, estremamente british.

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/102605293]