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

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 18

Me, preparing this post.

Welcome to the column which — according to readers — is responsible for many wasted worktime hours, but also provides some fresh conversation starters.

Allow me the usual quick summary of what happened to me over the last few weeks: in addition to being on the radio, first as a guest at Miracolo Italiano on RaiRadio2, and then interviewed on Radio Cusano Campus, a couple of days ago I was invited to take part in a broadcast I love very much, Terza Pagina, hosted by astrophysicist and fantasy author Licia Troisi. We talked about the dark meaning of the carnival, the upcoming TV series adapted from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a rather weird scientific research, and one book that is particularly close to my heart. The episode is available for streaming on RaiPlay (but of course it’s in Italian only).

Let’s start with some wonderful links that, despite these pleasant distractions, I have collected for you.

  • Every week for forty years a letter written by a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Kaor, was delivered to Hotel Spaander in Holland. The handwritten message was always the same: “Dear Sirs, how are you and how is the weather this week?”. Finally in 2018 some journalists tracked down the mysterious sender, discovering that 1) he had never set foot in that Dutch hotel in his entire life, and 2) some rather eccentric motivations were behind those 40 years of missives. Today Mr. Kaor even has his own portrait inside the hotel. Here is the full story. (Thanks, Matthew!)
  • Ever heard of the Holocene Extinction, the sixth mass extinction ever occurred on our planet?
    You should, because it’s happening now, and we’ve caused it.
    As for me, perhaps because of all the semiotics I studied at the university, I am intrigued by its linguistic implications: the current situation is so alarming that scientists, in their papers, are no longer using that classic, cold, distant vocabulary. Formal language does not apply to the Apocalypse.
    For example, a new research on the rapid decline in the population of insects on a global scale uses surprisingly strong tones, which the authors motivate as follows: “We wanted to really wake people up. When you consider 80% of biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years, it is a big concern. […] It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.
  • On a more optimistic note, starting from the second half of this year new emojis will arrive on our smartphones, specifically dedicated to disability and diversity. And yes, they will also include that long-awaited emoticon for menstruation.
  • Although he had proclaimed himself innocent, Hew Draper was imprisoned in the Tower of London for witchcraft. Once in his cell, he began sculpting this stuff on the wall. Suuuure, of course you’re innocent, Mr. Draper.

  • Here’s a nice article (Italian only) on death & grief in the digital era, mentioning Capsula Mundi, the Order of the Good Death, as well as myself.
  • Thomas Morris’ blog is always one of my favorite readings. This gentleman tirelessly combs through 19th-century medical publications in search of funny, uplifting little stories — like this one about a man crushed by a cartwheel which pushed his penis inside his abdomen, leaving its full skin dangling out like an empty glove.
  • There is one dramatic and excruciating picture I can not watch without being moved. It was taken by freelance photographer Taslima Akhter during the rescue of victims of the terrible 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh (which took the life of 1129 people, and wounded more than 2500). The photo, entitled Final Embrace, has won numerous awards and you can see it by clicking here.
  • Jack Stauber is a brilliant madman: he produces nonsense music videos that seem salvaged from some 1980s VHS, and are among the most genuinely creepy and hilarious things you’ll see on YouTube. Below I prresent you with the wonderful Cooking with Abigail, but there’s plenty more on his channel.

  • A new book on Jack The Ripper has been released in the UK.
    “Another one?”, I hear you say.
    Yes, but this is the first one that’s all about the victims. Women whose lives no scholar has ever really been interested in because, you know, after all they were just hookers.
  • Let’s say you’re merrily jumping around, chasing butterflies with your little hand net, and you stumble upon a body. What can you do?
    Here’s a useful infographic:

  • Above are some works by Lidia Kostanek, a Polish artist who lives in Nantes, whose ceramic sculptures investigate the body and the female condition. (via La Lune Mauve)
  • On this blog I have addressed the topic of head transplants several times. Still I did not know that these transplants have been successfully performed for 90 years, keeping both the donor and the recipient alive. Welcome to the magical world of insect head transplants. (Thanks, Simone!)

  • Last but not least, a documentary film I personally have been waiting for a while is finally opening in Italian cinemas: it’s called Wunderkammer – Le Stanze della Meraviglia, and it will disclose the doors of some of the most exclusive and sumptuous wunderkammern in the world. Among the collectors interviewed in the film there’s also a couple of friends, including the one and only Luca Cableri whom you may have seen in the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series. Here’s the movie trailer, and if you happen to be in Italy on March 4th, 5th and 6th, here’s a list of theatres that screen the film.

Victorian Hairwork: Interview with Courtney Lane

Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.

Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.

I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.

Hairwork by Courtney Lane.

Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?

I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.

How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?

Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.

As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.

Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?

Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.

How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?

Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.

  

Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?

Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.

19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?

I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.

What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?

Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair
by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.

Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?

The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.

You can visit Courtney Lane’s website Never Forgotten, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. If you’re interested in the symbolic and magical value of human hair, here is my post on the subject.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 9

Let’s start with some quick updates.

Just three days left till the end of the Bizzarro Bazar Contest. I received so many fantastic entries, which you will discover next week when the winners are announced. So if you’re among the procrastinators, hurry up and don’t forget to review the guidelines: this blog has to be explicitly mentioned/portrayed within your work.

On October 1st I will be at Teatro Bonci in Cesena for the CICAP Fest 2017 [CICAP is a skeptical educational organization.]
As this year’s edition will focus on fake news, hoaxes and post-truth, I was asked to bring along some wonders from my wunderkammer — particularly a bunch of objects that lie between truth and lies, between reality and imagination. And, just to be a bit of a rebel, I will talk about creative hoaxes and fruitful conspiracies.

As we are mentioning my collection, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for one of the last arrivals: this extraordinary work of art.

I hear you say “Well, what’s so special about it?“. Oh, you really don’t understand modern art, do you?
This picture, dated 2008, was painted by the famous artist Jomo.

Here’s Jomo:

Here’s Jomo as a bronze statuette, acquired along with the painting.

Exactly, you guessed it: from now on I will be able to pull  the good old Pierre Brassau prank on my house guests.
I was also glad the auction proceeds for the gorilla painting went to the Toronto Zoo personnel, who daily look after these wonderful primates. By the way, the Toronto Zoo is an active member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan and also works in Africa to save endangered gorillas (who I was surprised to find are facing extinction because of our cellphones).

And now let’s start with our usual selection of goodies:

She’d given me rendez-vous in a graveyard / At midnight – and I went: / Wind was howling, dark was the sky / The crosses stood white before the churchyard; / And to this pale young girl I asked: / – Why did you give me rendez-vous in a graveyard? / – I am dead, she answered, and you do not know: / Would you lay down beside me in this grave? / Many years ago I loved you, alive, / For many a year the merciless tomb sealed me off… / Cold is the ground, my beloved youth! / I am dead, she answered, and you do not know.

  • This is a poem by Igino Ugo Tarchetti, one of the leading figures in the Scapigliatura, the most bizarre, gothic and “maudit” of all Italian literary movements. (My new upcoming book for the Bizzarro Bazar Collection will also deal, although marginally, with the Scapigliati.)

  • And let’s move onto shrikes, these adorable little birds of the order of the Passeriformes.
    Adorable, yet carnivore: their family name, Laniidae, comes from the Latin word for “butcher” and as a matter of fact, being so small, they need to resort to a rather cruel ploy. After attacking a prey (insects but also small vertebrates), a shrike proceeds to impale it on thorns, small branches, brambles or barbed wire, in order to immobilize it and then comfortably tear it to pieces, little by little, while often still alive — making Vlad Tepes look like a newbie.

  • Talking about animals, whales (like many other mammals) mourn their dead. Here’s a National Geographic article on cetacean grief.
  • Let’s change the subject and talk a bit about sex toys. Sexpert Ayzad compiled the definitive list of erotic novelties you should definitely NOT buy: these ultra-kitsch, completely demented and even disturbing accessories are so many that he had to break them into three articles, one, two and three. Buckle up for a descent into the most schizoid and abnormal part of sexual consumerism (obviously some pics are NSFW).
  • Up next, culture fetishists: people who describe themselves as “sapiosexuals”, sexually attracted by intelligence and erudition, are every nerd’s dream, every introverted bookworm’s mirage.
    But, as this article suggests, choosing an intelligent partner is not really such a new idea: it has been a part of evolution strategies for millions of years. Therefore those who label themselves as sapiosexual on social networks just seem pretentious and eventually end up looking stupid. Thus chasing away anyone with even a modicum of intelligence. Ah, the irony.

  • Meanwhile The LondoNerD, the Italian blog on London’s secrets, has discovered a small, eccentric museum dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer whose life would be enough to fill a dozen Indiana Jones movies. [Sorry, the post is in Italian only]

Someone fixed giraffes, at last.

Dirty Dick, The Man Who Stopped Washing

This article originally appeared on The LondoNerD, an Italian blog on the secrets of London.

I have about an hour to complete my mission.
Just out of Liverpool Street Station, I look around waiting for my eyes to adapt to the glaring street. The light is harsh, quite oddly indeed as those London clouds rest on the Victorian buildings like oilcloth. Or like a shroud, I find myself thinking — a natural free association, since I stand a few steps away from those areas (the 19th-Century slums of Whitchapel and Spitafield) where the Ripper was active.
But my mission has nothing to do with old Jack.
The job was assigned to me by The LondoNerD himself: knowing I would have a little spare time before my connection, he wrote me a laconic note:

You should head straight for Dirty Dicks. And go down in the toilets.

Now: having The LondoNerD as a friend is always a sure bet, when you’re in the City. He knows more about London than most of actual Londoners, and his advice is always valuable.
And yet I have to admit that visiting a loo, especially in a place called Dirty Dicks, is not a prospect which makes me sparkle with enthusiasm.

But then again, this proposal must conceal something that has to do with my interests. Likely, some macabre secret.
For those who don’t know me, that’s what I do for a living: I deal with bizarre and macabre stuff. My (very unserious) business card reads: Explorer of the Uncanny, Collector of Wonders.

The collection the card refers to is of course made of physical obejects, coming from ancient times and esotic latitudes, which I cram inside my cabinets; but it’s also a metaphore for the strange forgotten stories I have been collecting and retelling for many years — historical adecdotes proving how the world never really ceased to be an enchanted place, overflowing with wonders.

But enough, time is running out.

Taking long strides I move towards Dirty Dicks, at 202 Bishopsgate. And it’s not much of a surprise to find that, given the name on the signs, the pub’s facade is one of the most photographed by tourists, amidst chuckles and faux-Puritan winks.

The blackboard by the door remarks upon a too often ignored truth:

I am not at all paranoid (I couldn’t be, since I spend my time dealing with mummies, crypts and anatomical museums), but I reckon the advice is worth following.

Dirty Dicks’ interiors combine the classic English pub atmosphere with a singular, vintage and vaguely hipster design. Old prints hanging from the walls, hot-air-balloon wallpaper, a beautiful chandelier dangling through the bar’s two storeys.

I quickly order my food, and head towards the famous restrooms.

The toilets’ waiting room is glowing with a dim yellow light, but finally, there in the corner, I recognize the objective of my mission. The reason I was sent here.

A two-door cabinet, plunged in semi-obscurity, is decorated with a sign: “Nathaniel Bentley’s Artefacts”.

It is so dark in here that I can barely identify what’s inside the cabinet. (I try and take some pictures, but the sensor, pushed to the limit of its capabilities, only gives back blurred images — for which I apologize with the reader.)

Yes, I can make out a mummified cat. And there’s another one. They remind me of the dead cat and mouse found behind Christ Church‘s organ in Dublin, and displayed in that very church.

No mice here, as far as I can tell, but there’s a spooky withered squirrel watching me with its bulging little eyes.

There are several taxidermied animals, little birds, mammal skulls, old naturalistic prints, gaffs and chimeras built with different animal parts, bottles and vials with unspecified specimens floating in alcohol that’s been clouded for a very long time now.

What is this dusty and moldy cabinet of curiosities doing inside a pub? Who is Nathaniel Bentley, whom the sign indicates as the creator of the “artefacts”?

The story of this bizarre collection is strictly tied to the bar’s origins, and its infamous name.
Dirty Dicks has in fact lost (in a humorous yet excellent marketing choice) its ancient genitive apostrophe, referring to a real-life character.
Dirty Dick was the nickname of our mysterious Nathaniel Bentley.

Bentley, who lived in the 18th Century, was the original owner of the pub and also ran a hardware store and a warehouse adjacent to the inn. After a carefree dandy youth, he decided to marry. But, in the most dramatic twist of fate, his bride died on their wedding day.

From that moment on Nathaniel, plunged into the abyss of a desperate grief, gave up washing himself or cleaning his tavern. He became so famous for his grubbiness that he was nicknamed Dirty Dick — and knowing the degree of hygiene in London at the time, the filth on his person and in his pub must have been really unimaginable.
Letters sent to his store were simply addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse”. It seems that even Charles Dickens, in his Great Expectations, might have taken inspiration from Dirty Dick for the character of Miss Havisham, the bride left at the altar who refuses to take off her wedding dress for the rest of her life.

In 1804 Nathaniel closed all of his commercial activities, and left London. After his death in 1809 in Haddington, Lincolnshire, other owners took over the pub, and decided to capitalize on the famous urban legend. They recreated the look of the old squallid warehouse, keeping their bottles of liquor constantly covered in dust and cobwebs, and leaving around the bar (as a nice decor) those worn-out stuffed and mummified animals Dirty Dick never cared to throw in the trash.

Today that Dirty Dicks is all clean and tidy, and the only smell is of good cuisine, the relics have been moved to this cabinet near the toilets. As a reminder of one of the countless, eccentric and often tragic stories that punctuate the history of London.

Funny how times change. Once the specialty of the house was filth, now it’s the inviting and delicious pork T-bone that awaits me when I get back to my table.

And that I willingly tackle, just to ward off potential kidnappers.

The LondoNerD is an Italian blog, young but already full of wonderful insights: weird, curious and little-knowns stories about London. You can follow on Facebook and Twitter

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 7

Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.

  • We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
  • As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
  • In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)

  • Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.

  • One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
  • Speaking of widowers, here’s a great article on another aspect we hear very little about: the sudden sex-appeal of grieving men, and the emotional distress it can cause.
  • To return to lighter subjects, here’s a spectacular pincushion seen in an antique store (spotted and photographed by Emma).

  • Are you looking for a secluded little place for your vacations, Arabian nights style? You’re welcome.
  • Would you prefer to stay home with your box of popcorn for a B-movies binge-watching session? Here’s one of the best lists you can find on the web. You have my word.
  • The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprentice a cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
  • Death Expo was recently held in Amsterdam, sporting all the latest novelties in the funerary industry. Among the best designs: an IKEA-style, build-it-yourself coffin, but above all the coffin to play games on. (via DeathSalon)
  • I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:

Diogo’s head…

…Radiohead.

  • Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
    On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
    And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?


No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development  — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.


The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations.  Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)

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.

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 – II

(Continued from the previous post)

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History still resides in its original location, in Mare Street, Hackney, East London (some years ago I sent over a trusted correspondant and published his ironic reportage).
Many things have changed since then: in 2014, the owner launched a 1-month Kickstarter campaign which earned him £ 16,000, allowing him to turn his eclectic collection into a proper museum, complete with a small cocktail bar, an art gallery and an underground dinining room. Just a couple of tables, to be precise; but it’s hard to think of another place where guests can dine around an authentic 19th century skeleton.

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The outrageous bad taste of placing human remains inside a dinner table is a good example of the sacrilegious vein that runs through the whole disposition of objects collected by Viktor: here the very idea of the museum as a high-culture institution is deconstructed and openly mocked. Refined works of art lay beside pornographic paperbacks, rare and precious ancient artifacts are on display next to McDonald’s Happy Meal toy surprises.

But this is not a meaningless jumble — it goes back to the original idea of a Museum being the domain of the Muses, a place of inspiration, of mysterious and unexpected connections, of a real attack to the senses. And this wunderkammer could infuriate wunderkammern purists.

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When I met up with him, Viktor Wynd didn’t even need to talk about himself. Among dodo bones, giant crabs, anatomical models, skulls and unique books, unmatched from their very titles — for instance Group Sex: A How-To Guide, or If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs — the museum owner was immersed in the objectification of his boundless imagination. As he moved along the display cases in his immense collection (insured for 1 million pounds), he looked like he was wandering through the rooms of his own mind.
Artist, surrealist and intellectual dandy, his life story as fascinating as his projects, Viktor always talks about the Museum as an inevitable necessity: “I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair“.

And this strange bistro of wonders, where he holds conferences, cocktail parties, masqued balls, exhibitions, dinners, is certainly a rare and beautiful thing.

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I then moved to the London Bridge area. In front of Borough Market is St. Thomas Street, where old St. Thomas church stands embedded between modern buildings. It was not the church itself I was interested in, but rather its garret.
The attic under the church’s roof hosts a little known museum with a peculiar history.

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The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is located in the space where all pharmaceuticals were prepared and stored, to be used in the annexed St. Thomas Hospital. A first section of the museum is dedicated to medicinal plants and antique therapeutic instruments. On display are several devices no longer in use, such as tools for cupping, bleeding and trepanation, and other quite menacing contraptions. But, together with its unique location, what gives this part of the museum its almost fantastic dimension is the sharp fragrance of dried flowers, herbs and spices (typical of other ancient pharmacies).

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If the pharmacy is thought to have been active since the 18th Century, only in 1822 a part of the garret was transformed into operating theatre — one of the oldest in Europe.
Here the patients from the female ward were operated. They were mostly poor women, who agreed to go under the knife before a crowd of medicine students, but in return were treated by the best surgeons available at the time, a privilege they could not have afforded otherwise.
Operations were usually the last resort, when all other remedies had failed. Without anestetics, unaware of the importance of hygiene measures, surgeons had to rely solely on their own swiftness and precision (see for instance my post about Robert Liston). The results were predictable: despite all efforts, given the often already critical conditions of the patients, intraoperative and postoperative mortality was very high.

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The last two places awaiting me in London turned out to be the only ones where photographs were not allowed. And this is a particularly interesting detail.

The first was of course the Hunterian Museum.
Over two floors are displayed thousands of veterinary and human anatomical specimens collected by famed Scottish surgeon John Hunter (in Leicester Square you can see his sculpted bust).
Among them, the preparations acquired by John Evelyn in Padua stand out as the oldest in Europe, and illustrate the vascular and nervous systems. The other “star” of the Museum is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” who died in 1783. Byrne was so terrified of ending up in an anatomical museum that he hired some fishermen to throw his corpse offshore. This unfortunately didn’t stop John Hunter who, determined to take possession of that extraordinary body, bribed the fishermen and paid a huge amount of money to get hold of his trophy.

The specimens, some of which pathological, are extremely interesting and yet everything seemed a bit cold if compared to the charm of old Italian anatomy museums, or even to the garret I had just visited in St. Thomas Church. What I felt was missing was the atmosphere, the narrative: the human body, especially the pathological body, in my view is a true theatrical play, a tragic spectacle, but here the dramatic dimension was carefully avoided. Upon reading the museum labels, I could actually perceive a certain urgency to stress the value and expressly scientific purpose of the collection. This is probably a response to the debate on ethical implications of displaying human remains in museums, a topic which gained much attention in the past few years. The Hunterian Museum is, after all, the place where the bones of the Irish giant, unscrupulously stolen to the ocean waves, are still displayed in a big glass case and might seem “helpless” under the visitors’ gaze.

My last place of wonder, and one of London’s best-kept secrets, is the Wildgoose Memorial Library.
The work of one single person, artist Jane Wildgoose, this library is part of her private home, can be visited by appointment and reached through a series of directions which make the trip look like a tresure hunt.
And a tresure it is indeed.

Jane is a kind and gentle spirit, the incarnation of serene hospitality.
Before disappearing to make some coffee, she whispered: “take your time to skim the titles, or to leaf through a couple of pages… and to read the objects“.
The objects she was referring to are really the heart of her library, which besides the books also houses plaster casts, sculptures, Victorian mourning hair wreaths, old fans and fashion items, daguerrotypes, engravings, seashells, urns, death masks, animal skulls. Yet, compared to so many other collections of wonders I have seen over the years, this one struck me for its compositional grace, for the evident, painstaking attention accorded to the objects’ disposition. But there was something else, which eluded me at that moment.

As Jane came back into the room holding the coffee tray, I noticed her smile looked slightly tense. In her eyes I could guess a mixture of expectation and faint embarassement. I was, after all, an outsider she had intentionally let into the cosiness of her home. If the miracle of a mutual harmony was to happen, this could turn out to be one of those rare moments of actual contact between strangers; but the stakes were high. This woman was presenting me with everything she held most sacred — “a poet is a naked person“, Bob Dylan once wrote — and now it all came down to my sensibility.

We began to talk, and she told me of her life spent safeguarding objects, trying to understand them, to recognize their hidden relationships: from the time when, as a child, she collected seashells on the southern shores of England, up to her latest art installations. Little by little, I started to realize what was that specific trait in her collection which at first I could not clearly pinpoint: the empathy, the humanity.
The Wildgoose Memorial Library is not meant to explore the concept of death, but rather the concept of grief. Jane is interested in the traces of our passage, in the signs that sorrow inevitably leaves behind, in the absence, in the longing and loss. This is what lies at the core of her works, commissioned by the most prestigious institutions, in which I feel she is attempting to process unresolved, unknown bereavements. That’s why she patiently fathoms the archives searching for traces of life and sorrow; that’s why her attention for the soul of things enabled her to see, for instance, how a cold catalogue accompanying the 1786 sale of Margaret Cavendish’s goods after her death could actually be the Duchess’s most intimate portrait, a key to unearthing her passions and her friendships.

This living room, I realized, is where Jane tries to mend heartaches — not just her own, but also those of her fellow human beings, and even those of the deceased.

And suddenly the Hunterian Museum came to my mind.
There, as in this living room, human remains were present.
There, as in this living room, the objects on display spoke about suffering and death.
There, as in this living room, pictures were not allowed, for the sake of respect and discretion.

Yet the two collections could not be more distant from each other, placed at opposite extremes of the spectrum.
On one hand, the aseptic showcases, the modern setting from which all emotion is removed, where the Obscene Body (in order to be explained, and accepted by the public) must be filtered through a detached, scientific gaze. The same Museum which, ironically, has to deal with the lack of ethics of its founders, who lived in a time when collecting anatomical specimens posed very little moral dilemmas.
On the other, this oasis of meditation, a personal vision of human beings and their impermanence enclosed in the warm, dark wood of Jane Wildgoose’s old library; a place where compassion is not only tangible, it gets under your skin; a place which can only exist because of its creator’s ethical concerns. And, ultimately, a research facility addressing death as an essential experience we should not be afraid of: it’s no accident the library is dedicated to Persephone because, as Jane pointed out, there’s “no winter without summer“.

Perhaps we need both opposites, as we would with two different medicines. To study the body without forgetting about the soul, and viceversa.
On the express train back to the airport, I stared at a clear sky between the passing trees. Not a single cloud in sight. No rain without sun, I told myself. And so much for the preconceptions I held at the beginning of my journey.

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.