Death and Broken Cups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My week of English wonders – I

England, despite the sweetness of its mild hills standing out, or its pleasantly green countryside, always had a funereal quality to my eye.

I am well aware that such an impression, indistinct and irrational as it is, is but an indefensible generalization; yet I cannot help this feeling deep inside of me every time I go back across the Channel.
It may be because of the many convent ruins characterizing the landscape since Reformation, or because of the infamously leaden sky, or the lingering memory of Victorian mournings; but I suspect the idea that this whole country could have an affinity with death was actually suggested to me by the British I happened to know throughout the years, who seemed to be fighting against a sort of innate, philosophical resignation with the weapons of irony.
In his sketches, John Cleese often made fun of the deferential British austerity, that fear of hurting or being hurt if feelings are given free rein — the same bottled up behaviour which finds its counterpart in the cruelty of British humour, in Blake’s dazzling ecstatic explosions, in the dandies’ iconoclasm or in punk nihilism. Thus, as hard as I have tried, I cannot get rid of the sensation that the English people think more than others, or maybe with less distractions, about vanitas, and are able to transform this awareness of futility (even in respect to social conventions) into a subversive undercurrent.

This is why heading to England to talk about memento mori felt somehow natural right from the start.
At the University of Winchester was gathered a heterogeneous crowd of academics (medievalists, medical historians, anatomists, paleopathologists, experts in literature and painting) and artists, all interested in the relationship between death, art and anatomy.

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These three days of memorable intellectual stimulation really fueled my mind, by nature already overexcited.
Therefore I arrived in London in a state of augmented perception, as the town greeted me with a bright sun and crystal blue skies over its buildings, as if eager to deny all the aforementioned stereotypes. And yet, in retrospect, the days I spent in the capital proved to be a protraction and a follow-up to the meditations initiated in Winchester.

My first, inevitable visit was obviously paid to the Wellcome Collection. This Museum, founded in 2007, is particularly dear to me because it addresses, like I often do on these pages, the intersections between science, art and the sacred. Its permanent collections feature anatomical dolls, memento mori, human remains (for instance a Peruvian 5 to 7 centuries-old mummy); but also fakirs sandals, shrunken heads, chastity belts and religious objects.

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A fascinating temporary exhibition entitled States of mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness introduces the visitor to the mysteries of the Self, of what we call “consciousness”, through the liminal territories of nightmare, somnambulism and its opposite — hypnagogic paralysis —, all the way to the uncharted realms of vegetative state. In the last room I learned with a shiver how recent studies suggest that patients suspended between life and death might be much more aware than we thought.


The Grant Museum of Zoology, just a five-minute walk from the Wellcome Collection, is the only remaining University zoological museum in the capital. The space open to the public is not very big, but it is packed to the ceiling with thousands of specimens covering the entire spectrum of animal kingdom. Skeletons, wet and taxidermied specimens are a silent — yet meaningful — reminder of the vortex of biodiversity.

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Another ten-minute walk, and I reached 1 Scala Street, the location for what is probably one of the most peculiar and evocative museums in London: Pollock’s Toy Museum.

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The visitor must proceed by climbing steep narrow stairs, passing through corridors and small rooms, in a sort of maze unfolding on multiple levels across two different houses, one built in the 1880s and the other dating back to the previous century. Ancient toys are stacked everywhere: dolls, tin soldiers, train models, stuffed animals, rocking horses, puppets, kaleidoscopes.
Coming from the Zoology Museum, I can’t help but think of how play is a fundamental activity for the human mammal. But what could appear just as a curious excursus in the history and diverse typologies of toys soon turns into something different.

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Standing before the display cases crowded with hundreds of time-worn puppets, overwhelmed by the incredible quantity of details, one could easily fall prey to a vague malaise. But this is not that sort of phobia some people have for old dolls and their vitreous gaze; it is a subtle, ancient melancholia.

What happened to the children who held those teddy bears, who played out fantastic stories on tiny cardboard theaters, who opened their eyes wide in front of a magic lantern?

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It might have been just another suggestion caused by previous days spent in heartfelt discussions on the symbols and simulacra of death; or, once more, my preconceptions were to blame.
But to me, even a museum dedicated to child entertainment somehow looked like a triumph of impermanence.

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(This article continues here)

My wunderkammer

This article originally appeared on #ILLUSTRATI n.31 – “MIRABILIA”

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My wunderkammer

I love to stay awake: the big city finally surrenders to exhaustion, and I can almost perceive the dreams of my neighbours coming out of the houses until they form a huge blanket, in iridescent colours and patterns, unfolding over the silent roofs.
When the night is about to turn into morning, I happen to pause in front of my cabinets of wonders.

There are human and animal skulls, red Gorgons and starfishes, taxidermic specimens preserved in liquids, ancient texts of pathological anatomy, prints and engravings representing human cruelty over the centuries (the big repressed impulse that we wish was only the remnant of our beastly past, and which has never left us instead). And then pornographic photographs of the 1920s, old medical tools, and a whole series of objects concerning the intersection between the sacred and the macabre (historiated skullcaps, shinbones turned into musical instruments, death masks, funerary art, mourning portraits, and so on).

My collection talks to me, with its peculiar voice which is in fact a multitude of voices. And it is a phase, a tool for the research that has always absorbed me.

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Although I own this collection, I don’t think of myself as a collector. I am not compulsive.
What I love in the objects I collect is the fact that they are packed with history, with life. I happened to know collectors of corkscrews, irons, majolicas, coffee cans; those who do not share their passion are overwhelmed by boredom within five minutes.
On the other hand, I have learnt that nobody is indifferent to a cabinet of wonders. Reactions can range from disgust (much more rarely than it is commonly believed) to childlike amazement, from scientific interest to moral outrage in front of some habits that today we find questionable: consider the cilice of the beginning of the Twentieth century, the tiny Chinese shoes for bandaged feet, the souvenir postcard, hand-coloured and dated 1907, which shows a proud English colonialist holding the head of an executed pirate. Children, for their part, go crazy for stuffed animals and bones.

Colonialist postcard (fronte)

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Every collection is a sort of map that reflects and describes the collector’s personality, his taste, his small obsessions.
Stefano Bessoni is most probably the one who taught me – without words, of course – that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our own obsessions, but we should instead cultivate them with enthusiasm. And his incredible wunderkammer is a clear objectification of his imagination, a physical offshoot of his inner world: it possesses a wonderful and strict disorder that makes it similar to the dusty booty of a Victorian explorer, a mix of Livingstone and Darwin, where one’s gaze gets lost among a thousand confused details.
My collection is of course different, because it is mine. One of my obsessions is people’s relationship with death, with the barriers and the symbols we have invented – every time and in every place – to put up with the anguish it causes. What are stuffed or mummified animals but an attempt to stop time and defeat decay? In these objects, the wonder for the world and natural shapes is mixed with a secret fear of
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And this dread of eternal decay, which would deprive our existence of meaning, is visible behind the impulse to analyse, classify, make maps and, in the end, control the whole cosmos; to investigate our body in order to defeat disease and old age; to invent any kind of deity in order to be assured that the abovementioned decay is not really definitive. And eroticism, hosted by a section of my cabinets, is maybe the most intense symbolic representation of the instincts related to death.

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Sometimes, when all is quiet, my wunderkammer looks like a psychic spacecraft. Enigmatic conglomerate of temporary forms, clots of pains and lives returned to dust, amazed gaze, mystery of things.

We spend our whole life practicing impermanence. Let’s assume tomorrow I lose my entire collection in a fire: I would shed a few tears, of course, but I wouldn’t scream or damn my fate. If I did, I would prove I have not understood the lesson that the wunderkammer softly whispers to me every night.

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Asubha

Asubha-Kammatthana: asubha significa “il non-bello”, kammatthana “meditazione”. Stiamo parlando di meditazioni buddhiste che riguardano gli aspetti più spiacevoli e rivoltanti del corpo umano. Alcuni di questi esercizi spirituali (come ad esempio la meditazione sulle 32 parti del corpo) richiedono di concentrarsi sugli organi interni, visualizzandoli uno per uno, in tutta la loro repulsiva mollezza e viscosità. Queste meditazioni non erano pensate per tutti i monaci, ma venivano “propinate” in particolare a quegli individui che mostravano, più degli altri, un attaccamento e un’eccessiva passione per il corpo o per il sesso. Si tratta, insomma, di una specie di estremo rimedio per curare chi proprio non ce la fa a rifuggere dagli eccessi della carne.

Ma, nonostante tutte le meditazioni asubha avessero il preciso scopo di risultare spiacevoli, di certo la più terribile era quella che si svolgeva attraverso la contemplazione dei cimiteri, e in particolare dei cadaveri in decomposizione. Se dovessimo tracciare un paragone con l’Occidente, diremmo che più che al memento mori, questi esercizi erano comparabili a una riflessione sulla vanitas: non tanto, quindi, meditazioni sul nostro destino, quanto sulla futilità dei nostri desideri. Ogni contemplazione serviva a contrastare alcuni determinati impulsi – ma teniamo bene a mente che il buddhismo non è intrinsecamente ascetico, e non condanna tanto le passioni, quanto l’eccesso. Provare attrazione fisica per una donna, per fare un esempio, non è un male in sé, ma quando diviene patologico e intralcia il percorso verso la liberazione del sé va contrastato. La via del Buddha è chiamata “del giusto mezzo” proprio perché predica un sano equilibrio fra mente e sensi.

Ma torniamo ai nostri poveri monaci che decidevano (o a cui veniva impartito dal maestro) di cimentarsi nella contemplazione più terribile e difficile che ci fosse.

Le forme della meditazione asubha erano 10:

  1. uddhumātaka (cadavere gonfio)
  2. vinīlaka (cadavere brunaceo, o violaceo per la decomposizione)
  3. vipubbaka (cadavere purulento)
  4. vicchiddaka (cadavere separato in due parti)
  5. vikkhāyitaka (cadavere rosicchiato dagli animali)
  6. vikkhattaka (parti disperse di un cadavere)
  7. hatavikkhittaka (parti di un cadavere tagliate con un coltello)
  8. lohitaka (cadavere sanguinante)
  9. puḷuvaka (cadavere pieno di vermi)
  10. aṭṭhika (scheletro di un cadavere)

Il cadavere gonfio (n.1) è perfetto per combattere la troppa passione per le forme, mostrando che non sono permanenti. Il cadavere livido (n.2) contrasta la passione per il colorito della pelle e la sua consistenza. Il cadavere purulento (n.3) mostra l’inutilità di unguenti e profumi. E via dicendo, avrete certamente capito l’antifona. Nel Vissudhimagga del V secolo vengono descritti nel dettaglio i 10 tipi di cadavere, il loro aspetto e l’importanza che rivestono nello scardinare i desideri legati al corpo. Da questo bizzarro “menu”, il monaco doveva scegliere la salma che era più adatta a curare il suo punto debole, e restare per giorni interi vicino ad essa, cercando di concentrare tutti i suoi pensieri sull’oggetto della meditazione. Sei troppo ossessionato dai seni delle donne? Guarda come sono i primi ad essere rosicchiati dai cani e dagli animali selvatici, e ti renderai conto che sono soltanto pezzi di carne.

Ovviamente non era così semplice procurarsi cadaveri freschi o trovarli nelle condizioni particolari che servivano allo scopo; magari si poteva anche trovare la salma adeguata, ma non si riusciva ad averci accesso per il lungo tempo previsto dall’esercizio. Ma era talmente importante, per vedere le cose nella giusta prospettiva, che Buddha stesso raccomandava (forse figuratamente) di “eleggere il cimitero a propria dimora”.

Oggi le cose non sono migliorate, e così il sito italiano buddhista dhammadana.org suggerisce, nella pagina dedicata all’asubha (occhio a cliccare sul link, foto esplicite), di optare per una meditazione meno cruenta: ogni volta che vediamo qualcosa di piacevole (shuba), dovremmo cercare di farlo diventare spiacevole: “la bella coscia di una graziosa giovinetta diviene comparabile ad un prosciutto di maiale; il radioso sorriso di un affascinante giovane, ad una fila di denti, circondati da un pezzo di carne, e così di seguito. Possiamo mentalmente tagliare e decomporre quanto osserviamo. Per esempio, un sorriso seducente ci appare, allora, per quello che è: un dente, più un altro, più un altro… più un labbro, più un altro, il tutto attorniato da carne, punteggiata da peli, ecc. Un altro modo di praticare è quello di ingrandire i dettagli. Vista molto da vicino, non importa quale parte tra le più attraenti di un corpo, diviene un vero orrore”.

Con buona pace del “giusto mezzo”, verrebbe da dire, qui si passa da un estremo all’altro! Ma ricordiamoci che l’esercizio asubha serve proprio a quello, a contrastare un’inclinazione esagerata, per trovare il corretto compromesso.

Oggi una simile tecnica può sembrare piuttosto assurda. Eppure la meditazione sulla morte e sul cadavere non è certo un’esclusiva buddhista, e a pensarci bene è in definitiva al centro di qualsiasi spiritualità. Cos’è in fondo la ricerca religiosa o spirituale se non un tentativo di difesa dalla morte, o al contrario di accettazione della nostra inevitabile fine? Guardare i morti può provocare ribrezzo, ma in un certo senso ci avvicina a uno sguardo sincero, rende meno solide le nostre ipocrisie e certamente mette i nostri problemi quotidiani in una prospettiva più vera.

Jhator

Siamo abituati a considerare la salma di un caro estinto con estremo rispetto: nonostante la convinzione che si tratti in definitiva di un involucro vuoto, le esequie occidentali si iscrivono nella tradizione cristiana della conservazione del cadavere, in attesa della resurrezione della carne. Anche esulando dall’ambito strettamente religioso, il rispetto per la salma non cambia: addirittura la cremazione, pur disfacendo il corpo, viene principalmente intesa da noi come metodo per “salvare” il corpo dalla naturale putrefazione, o per dissolvere metaforicamente l’anima del defunto nel mondo.

In Tibet, invece, le esequie tradizionali hanno assunto dei connotati decisamente distanti dalla nostra sensibilità, ma non per questo meno stimolanti o affascinanti. La cerimonia funebre del jhator, o “funerale del cielo”, si è sviluppata a causa della mancanza, alle grandi altitudini himalayane, della vegetazione necessaria alla cremazione e dell’estrema durezza del suolo che impedisce la sepoltura vera e propria. Jhator significa letteralmente “elemosina agli uccelli”, ed infatti sono proprio questi ultimi i protagonisti della cerimonia.

Dopo alcuni giorni di canti e preghiere, il corpo del defunto viene portato all’alba nel luogo sacro destinato al funerale, sul fianco di una montagna che guarda ad est.  Il punto esatto delle esequie può essere in prossimità di templi (stupa), marcato da altari oppure da semplici lastre di pietra. Qui il corpo viene liberato dal sudario, e al sorgere del sole alcuni uomini (chiamati rogyapa, “distruttori di corpi”) cominciano a tagliare la salma secondo le indicazioni di un lama, seguendo un preciso ordine di dissezione rituale.

I primi pezzi di carne, strappati dalle ossa, vengono gettati a qualche metro di distanza, per attirare gli avvoltoi. Se questi non si avvicinano, viene eseguita una danza propiziatoria, il cui canto intriso di versi e suoni gutturali serve da richiamo per gli animali. In breve tempo alcune dozzine di uccelli sono allineati in fremente attesa. Dopo aver proceduto a rimuovere gli organi interni e a tagliare il corpo in pezzi sempre più piccoli, i rogyapa, con dei grossi martelli o con delle pietre, frantumano le ossa per mischiarle alla polpa.

Ogni brandello di carne viene dato in offerta agli avvoltoi, e niente va conservato: una volta sazi, questi enormi uccelli lasciano i rimasugli ai falchi e ai corvi più piccoli, che hanno pazientemente aspettato a debita distanza. Talvolta le carni vengono mischiate alla farina, per sottolineare come questo “pasto” sia davvero un’offerta.

Questo rito funebre, che può apparire barbaro agli occhi di un occidentale, è in realtà intriso di un profondo sentimento: quello dell’impermanenza, una delle grandi verità buddiste. Siamo soltanto di passaggio, appariamo e subito svaniamo nel nulla, in un continuo cambiamento di forma; l’accettazione di questa realtà rende la salma niente più che un guscio, utile a nutrire altri esseri viventi. Così il jhator è innanzitutto un atto rituale di generosità, ma dona anche la sensazione che il morto non sia mai veramente uscito dal ciclo naturale della vita.

In poco meno di un’ora del corpo non rimane più nulla, e i parenti si allontanano dal sacro luogo per far ritorno, più a valle, alle loro gioie e alle loro difficoltà quotidiane. Forse, per ricordare chi se ne è andato, è sufficiente lanciare uno sguardo alle vette dell’Himalaya, che brillano, immense, nel sole.

Ecco la pagina di Wikipedia (in inglese) sul jhator.