Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 6

Step right up! A new batch of weird news from around the world, amazing stories and curious facts to get wise with your friends! Guaranteed to break the ice at parties!

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

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

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

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

Ghost Marriages

China, Shanxi province, on the nothern part of the Republic.
At the beginningof 2016, the Hongtong County police chief gave the warning: during the three previous years, at least a dozen thefts of corpses were recorded each year. All the exhumed and smuggled bodies were of young women, and the trend is incresing so fast that many families now prefer to bury their female relatives near their homes, rather than in secluded areas. Others resort to concrete graves, install surveillance cameras, hire security guards or plant gratings around the burial site, just like in body snatchers England. It looks like in some parts of the province, the body of a young dead girl is never safe enough.
What’s behind this unsettling trend?

These episodes of body theft are connected to a very ancient tradition which was thought to be long abandoned: the custom of “netherworld marriages”.
The death of a young unmarried male is considered bad lack for the entire family: the boy’s soul cannot find rest, without a mate.
For this reasons his relatives, in the effort of finding a spouse for the deceased man, turn to matchmakers who can put them in contact with other families having recently suffered the lost of a daughter. A marriage is therefore arranged for the two dead young persons, following a specific ritual, until they are finally buried together, much to the relief of both families.
This kind of marriages seem to date back to the Qin dinasty (221-206 a.C.) even if the main sources attest a more widespread existence of the practice starting from the Han dinasty (206 a.C.-220 d.C.).

The problem is that as the traffic becomes more and more profitable, some of these matchmakers have no qualms about exhuming the precious corpses in secret: to sell the bodies, they sometimes pretend to be relatives of the dead girl, but in other cases they simply find grieving families who are ready to pay in order to find a bride for their departed loved one, and willing to turn a blind eye on the cadaver’s provenance.

Until some years ago, “ghost marriages” were performed by using symbolic bamboo figurines, dressed in traditional clothes; today weath is increasing, and as much as 100,000 yan (around $15,000) can be spent on the fresh body of a young girl. Even older human remains, put back together with wire, can be worth up to $800. The village elders, after all, are the ones who warn new generations: to cast away bad luck nothing beats an authentic corpse.
Although the practice has been outlawed in 2006, the business is so lucrative that the number of arrests keep increasing, and at least two cases of murder have been reported in the news where the victim was killed in order to sell her body.

If at first glance this tradition may seem macabre or senseless, let us consider its possible motivations.
In the province where these episodes are more frequent, a large number of young men work in coal mines, where fatal accidents are sadly common. The majority of these boys are the sole children of their parents, because of the Chinese one-child policy, effective until 2013.
So, apart from reasons dictated by superstition, there is also an important psychological element: imagine the relief if, in the process of elaborating grief, you could still do something to make your dearly departed happy. Here’s how a “ghost wedding” acts as a compensation for the loss of a loved boy, who maybe died while working to support his family.

Marriages between two deceased persons, or between a living person and a dead one, are not even unique to China, for that matter. In France posthumous marriages (which usually take place when a woman prematurely loses her fiancé) are regularly requested to the President of the Republic, who has the power of issuing the authorization. The purpose is to acknowledge children who were conceived before the premature death, but there may also been purely emotional motivations. In fact there’s a relatively long list of countries that allowed for marriages in which one or both the newlywed were no longer alive.

In closing, here is a little curiosity.
In the well-known Tim Burton film Corpse Bride (2005), inspired by a centuries-old folk tale (the short story Die Todtenbraut by F. A. Schulze, found within the Fantasmagoriana anthology, is a Romantic take on that tale), the main character puts a ring on a small branch, unaware that this light-hearted move is actually sanctioning his netherworld engagement.
Quite similar to that harmless-looking twig is a “trick” used in Taiwan when a young girl dies unmarried: her relatives leave out on the streets a small red package containing Hell money, a lock of hair or some nails from the dead woman. The first man to pick up the package has to marry the deceased girl, if he wants to avoid misfortune. He will be allowed to marry again, but he shall forever revere the “ghost” bride as his first, real spouse.

These rituals become necessary when an individual enters the afterlife prematurely, without undergoing a fundamental rite of passage like marriage (therefore without completing the “correct” course of his life). As is often the case with funeral customs, the practice has a beneficial and apotropaic function both for the social group of the living and for the deceased himself.
On one hand all the bad luck that could harm the relatives of the dead is turned away; a bond is formed between two different families, which could not have existed without a proper marriage; and, at the same time, everybody can rest assured that the soul will leave this world at peace, and will not depart for the last voyage bearing the mark of an unfortunate loneliness.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 4

As I am quite absorbed in the Academy of Enchantment, which we just launched, so you will forgive me if I fall back on a new batch of top-notch oddities.

  • Remember my article on smoked mummies? Ulla Lohmann documented, for the first time ever, the mummification process being carried out on one of the village elders, a man the photographer knew when he was still alive. The story of Lohmann’s respectful stubbornness in getting accepted by the tribe, and the spectacular pictures she took, are now on National Geographic.

  • Collective pyres burning for days in an unbearable stench, teeth pulled out from corpses to make dentures, bones used as fertilizers: welcome to the savage world of those who had to clean up Napoleonic battlefields.
  • Three miles off the Miami coast there is a real underwater cemetery. Not many of your relatives will take scuba lessons just to pay their last respects, but on the other hand, your grave will become part of the beautiful coral reef.

  • This one is for those of you acquainted with the worst Italian TV shows. In one example of anaesthetic television — comforting and dull, offering the mirage of an effortless win, a fortune that comes out of nowhere — the host randomly calls a phone number, and if the call is picked up before the fifth ring then a golden watch is awarded to the receiver. But here’s where the subversive force of memento mori comes in: in one of the latest episodes, an awkward surprise awaited the host. “Is this Mrs. Anna?” “No, Mrs. Anna just died.“, a voice replies.
    For such a mindless show, this is the ultimate ironic defeat: the embarassed host cannot help mumbling, “At this point, our watch seems useless…

  • How can we be sure that a dead body is actually dead? In the Nineteenth Century this was a major concern. That is why some unlucky workers had to pull cadaver tongues, while others tried to stick dead fingers into their own ears; there were those who even administered tobacco enemas to the dead… by blowing through a pipe.
  • What if Monty Python were actually close to the truth, in their Philosphers Song portraying the giants of thought as terminal drunkards? An interesting long read on the relationship between Western philosophy and the use of psychoactive substances.
  • If you haven’t seen it, there is a cruel radiography shattering the self-consolatory I-am-just-big-boned mantra.

  • Man will soon land on Mars, likely. But in addition to bringing life on the Red Planet, we will also bring another novelty: death. What would happen to a dead body in a Martian atmosphere, where there are no insects, no scavengers or bacteria? Should we bury our dead, cremate them or compost them? Sarah Laskow on AtlasObscura.
  • In closing, here is a splendid series of photographs entitled Wilder Mann. All across Europe, French photographer Charles Fréger documented dozens of rural masquerades. Creepy and evocative, these pagan figures stood the test of time, and for centuries now have been annoucing the coming of winter.

La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

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

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.


Capsula Mundi

I have sometimes talked about the false dichotomy between Nature and Culture, that weird, mostly Western aberration that sees mankind separated and opposed to the rest of the environment. This feeling of estrangement is what’s behind the melancholy for the original union, now presumed lost: we look at birds in a tree, and regret we are not that carefree and unrestrained; we look at our cities and struggle to find them “natural”, because we insisted in building them with rigid geometries rarely found elsewhere, as if to mark the difference with all other habitats in which straight lines seldom exist.
This vision of man as a creature completely different from other living beings has found an obvious declination in Western burials. It’s one of the very few traditions in which the grave is designed to keep the body from returning to earth (of course in the past centuries this also had to do with the idea of preserving the body for the ultimate Resurrection).
But there is someone who is trying to change this perspective.

Picture your death as a voyage through three different states of matter. Imagine crossing the boundaries between animal, mineral and plant kingdom.
This is the concept behind Capsula Mundi, an italian startup devised by Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel, which over the past decade has been trying to achieve a new, eco-friendly and poetic kind of burial. An egg made of biodegradable material will wrap the body arranged in fetal position, or the ashes; once planted underground, it will grow a specific tree, chosen by the deceased when still alive. One after the other, these “graves” will form a real sacred forest where relatives and friends can wander around, taking care of the very plants grown, fed and left as inheritance by their dear departed. A more joyful alternative to the heavy, squared marble gravestone, and a way of accepting death as a transition, a transformation rather than the end of life.

Actually the very idea of a “capsule” incorporates two separate connotations. On one hand there’s the scientific idea of a membrane, of a cell, of a seed for new life. And the shell enveloping the body — not by chance arranged in fetal position — is a sort of replica of the original embryo, a new amniotic sac which symbolically affirms the specularity (or even the identity) of birth and death. On the other, there is the concept of a “capsule” as a vehicle, a sci-fi pod, a vessel leading the corpse from the animal kingdom to the mineral kingdom, allowing all the body components to decompose and to be absorbed by the plant roots.
Death may look like a black monolith, but it gives rise to the cosmic fetus, the ever-changing mutation.

The planting of a tree on burial grounds also refers to the Roman tradition:

For the ancients, being buried under the trees enabled the deceased body to be absorbed by the roots, and matter to be brought back to life within the plant. Such an interpenetration between the corpse and the arboreal organism therefore suggested a highly symbolic meaning: plunging his roots inside mother earth and pushing his top towards the sky, it was like the deceased was stretching out his arms, to protect and save his descendants, in a continuing dialogue with posterity’s affection and memory. 

(N. Giordano, Roma, potenza e simbologia: dai boschi sacri al “Miglio d’oro”, in SILVÆ – Anno VI n. 14)

I asked some questions to Anna Citelli, creator of Capsula Mundi along with Raoul Bretzel.

It is clear today that the attitude towards death and dying is changing, after a century of medicalization and removal: more and more people feel the need to discuss these topics, to confront them and above all to find new (secular) narratives addressing them. In this sense, Capsula Mundi is both a practical and symbolic project. From what did you draw inspiration for this idea? The “capsule” was shaped like an egg from the beginning, or were you initially thinking of something else?

We unveiled the Capsula Mundi project in 2003, at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It was not the first time we exhibited at the Salon, albeit independently from one another. Our works at the time were already a reflection on sustainability, and when we had the occasion to work together we asked ourselves some questions about the role of designers in a society which appears removed from nature, well-satisfied and overwhelmed by objects for every necessity.
We decided to devote our work to a moment in life of extreme importance, charged with symbolic references, just like birth and wedding. Death is a delicate passage, mysterious and inevitable. It is the moment in which the person stops consuming or producing, therefore in theory it’s something distant from the glossy environment of design. But if we look at it as a natural phenomenon, a transformation of substances, death is the moment in which the being is reconnected with nature, with its perpetual changing. The coffin, an object neglected by
designers, becomes a way of reflecting on the presumption that we are not part of the biological cycle of life, a reflection on a taboo. Adopting the perfect shape of the egg was an immediate and instinctive choice, the only one that could indicate our thought: that death is not an end or an interruption, but the beginning of a new path.

How does Capsula Mundi relate to the death-positive movement? Is your project, while not aspiring to replace traditional burials but rather to offer an alternative choice, also intended to promote a cultural debate?

We have been presenting the concept of Capsula Mundi for more than a decade now, and in the last few years in the public we have finally seen a rising need to talk about death, free from any negative cultural conditioning. It is a collective and transversal need which leads to an enrichment we’ve all been waiting for. We receive a lot of letters from all over the world, from architecture students to palliative treatments operators, from botany students to documentary filmmakers. A whole variety of human beings sharing different experiences, trying to achieve a social change through debate and confrontation, to gain a new perspective on the end of life.

What point is the project at, and what difficulties are you encountering?

Green burials are prohibited in Italy, but seeing the huge demand we receive every day we decided to start the production of the small version of Capsula Mundi, for cremated remains. In the meantime we are carrying on the studies to build capsules for the whole body, but we still need some time for research.

Green burials are already a reality in other countries, as are humanist funerals. Do you think the Italian legislation in funeral matters will change any time soon?

We think that laws are always a step behind social changes. In Italy cemetery regulations date back to Napoleonic times, and legislative change will not happen quickly. But the debate is now open, and sooner or later we too will have memorial parks. Regarding cremated remains, for instance, many things have already changed, almost all regions adjusted to the citizens requests and chose some areas in which the ashes can be spread. Up until some years ago, the urn had to be left within the cemetery, under lock and key and in the keeper’s custody.

How is the audience responding to your project?

Very well. Since the beginning, in 2003, our project never caused any uproar or complaint. It was always understood beyond our expectations. Now, with the help of social medias, its popularity has grown and we just reached 34.000 likes on Facebook. In november 2015 we presented Capsula Mundi to an English-speaking audience at TEDx Torino and it’s been a huge success. For us it is a wonderful experience.

Official site: Capsula Mundi.

Smoked mummies


The Morobe Province, in Papua New Guinea, is home to the Anga people.
Once fearsome warriors, leading terrible raids in nearby peaceful villages, today the Anga have learned how to profit from a peculiar kind of tourism. Anthropologists, adventurers and curious travelers come to the isolated villages of Morobe Highlands just to see their famous smoked mummies.






It’s not clear when the practice first started, but it could be at least 200 years old. It was officially prohibited in 1975, when Papua New Guinea became independent; therefore the most recent mummies date back to the years following the Second World War.





This treatment of honor was usually reserved for the most valiant warriors: as soon as they died, they were bled dry, disemboweled and put over a fire to cure. The smoking could last even more than a month. At last, when the body was completely dry, all corporal cavities were sewn shut and the whole corpse was smeared with mud and red clay to further preserve the flesh from deteriorating, and to form a protective layer against insects and scavengers.
Many sources report that the fat deriving from the smoking process was saved and later used as cooking oil, but this detail might be a fantasy of the first explorers (for instance Charles Higgingon, who was the first to report about the mummies in 1907): whenever Westeners came in contact with remote and “primitive” tribes, they often wanted to see cannibalism even in rituals that did not involve any.






The smoked bodies were then brought, after a ritual ceremony, on mountain slopes overlooking the village. Here they were secured to the steep rock face using bamboo structures, so they could act as a lookout, protecting the abodes in the underlying valley. This way, they maintained their warrior status even after their death.






The bodies are still worshipped today, and sometimes brought back to the village to be restored: the dead man’s descendants change the bush rope bandages, and secure the bones to the sticks, before placing the ancestor back to his lookout post.








Despite the mummies being mainly those of village warriors, as mentioned, among them are sometimes found the remains of some woman who held a particularly important position within the tribe. The one in the following picture is still holding a baby to her breast.




This method for preserving the bodies, as peculiar as it looks, closely resembles both the Toraja funeral rites of Indonesia (I talked about them in this post) and the much more ancient “fire mummies” which can be found in Kabayan, in northern Philippines. Here the corpse was also placed over a fire to dry, curled in fetal position; tobacco smoke was blown into the dead man’s mouth to further parch internal organs. The prepared bodies were then put in pinewood coffins and layed down in natural caves or in niches especially dug inside the mountains. The ancestor spirit’s integrity was thus guaranteed, so he could keep on protecting the village and assuring its prosperity.

Timbac Caves3



In The Eternal Vigil I have written about how, until recent times, the Palermo Catacombs allowed a contact with the afterlife, so much so that young boys could learn their family history before the mummies, and ask for their help and benevolence. Death was not really the end of existence, and did not present itself as an irreparable separation, because between the two spheres an ongoing interchange took place.
In much the same way, on the other side of the world, ritual mummification guaranteed communication between the dead and the living, defining a clear but not impenetrable threshold between the two worlds. Death was a change of state, so to speak, but did not erase the personality of the deceased, nor his role within the community, which became if possible even more relevant.

Even today, when asked by a local guide escorting the tourists to see the mummies, an Anga man can point to one of the corpses hanging from the rock, and present him with these words: “That’s my grandpa“.

(Thanks, batisfera!)

Caitlin Doughty and the Good Death

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A love that would not die – III


In the past years we have already delved into love stories that surpass the barrier of death (the case of Carl Tanzler and a similar story which took place in Vietnam).
Perhaps less macabre than these other two incidents, but just as moving, was Jonathan Reed’s passion for his wife Mary E. Gould Reed.

When Mary died, she was buried in her father’s crypt, at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. But Jonathan, who then was in his sixties, could not abandon his wife. He kept telling himself that maybe, by showing her his unconditional love, things could go on like before.
His visits to her grave began to be judged excessively frequent, even for a grieving widower who, as a retired businessman, had plenty of free time. As the neighbors began to murmur, Mary’s father asked Reed to behave in a more discreet manner: he therefore reduced his apparitions at the graveyard. But when his father-in-law passed away, for Jonathan there were no more obstacles.


He bought a new mausoleum in another section of the cemetery in which he transferred his dead wife’s body. Beside Mary’s casket he positioned a second empty one, where he himself would be lying when time came to join her.
Eventually Jonathan moved into the crypt.

He took some domestic furniture to the vestibule of the tomb, and hung a clock to the funeral cell wall; he equipped the mausoleum with a potbelly stove, complete with chimney tubes carrying the smoke out through the roof. He decided to decorate the small room with all the things Mary loved – flower pots, picture showing her at different ages, fine paintings on the walls, her last half-finished knitting – and even found place inside the tomb for their pets, a parrot and a squirrel.


Jonathan Reed’s routine knew no variation. He came to the cemetery when gates opened, at six o’clock in the morning, entered the mausoleum and lit the fire. He then went up to Mary’s coffin, which he had especially equipped with a small window, at eye level, that he could open: through that peephole he could see his wife, and talk to her. “Good morning Mary, I have come to sit with you”, was his morning greeting.
Jonathan spent his whole day in there, chatting with his wife as if she could hear him, telling her the latest news, reading books to her. The he would dine in their wedding china. After lunch, he would pull out a deck of cards and play some game with Mary, laying down the cards for her.
Whenever he wanted some fresh air, he sat before the entrance in a rocking chair: he looked just like a classic old man on his front porch, always politely saying hello to whoever was passing by.
At six o’clock in the evening the cemetery closed and he was forced to leave, after wishing his Mary goodnight.


This strange character quickly became a small celebrity in the district. Some said he could communicate with the afterworld. Come said he was crazy. Some said he was convinced that his wife would wake up sooner or later, and he wanted to be the first person for Mary to see when she came back. Some said he developed complicated theories about the “heat”that would bring her back to life.
The story of the widower who refused to leave his wife’s grave appeared in several short pieces even on international press, and litlle by little a curious crowd began to show up every day. In his first year as a resident at Evergreens some 7000 people came to greet him. Many women, it is said, intended to “save” him from his obsession, but he always kindly replied that his heart belonged to Mary. According to the reports, Reed even received the visit of seven Buddhist monks from Burma, who were convinced that he might have acquired some secret knowledge on the afterlife. Jonathan had to disappoint them, confessing he was just there to be close to his wife.

The everyday life of Evergreens Cemetery’s most famous resident went on undisturbed for ten years, until on March 23, 1905, he was found unconscious on the mausoleum’s floor, in cardiac arrest. Jonathan Reed was transferred to Kings County Hospital, where he died some days later, aged seventy. He was buried in the grave he had spent the last decade of his life in, beside his wife.


An article on the New York Times claimed that “Mr. Reed could never be made to believe that his wife was really dead, his explanation for her condition being that the warmth had simply left her body and that if he kept the mausoleum warm she would continue to sleep peacefully in the costly metallic casket in which her remains were put. Friends often visited him in the tomb, and although they at first tried to convince him that his wife was really dead, they long ago gave up that argument, and have for years humored the whims of the old man”.
The article on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which appeared the very day of his admission at the hospital. had a similar tone; the author once again described Reed as obsessed by the idea of keeping Mary’s body warm, even if it was noted that “in spite of this remarkable eccentricity in regard to his dead wife, Mr. Reed is in other respects an unusually intelligent and interesting man. He converses on all subjects with a degree of knowledge and insight rare to a person of his age. It is only upon the subject of death that he appears to be at all deranged”.

Clearly, the story the papers loved to tell was one about denial of grief, about a man who rejected the very idea of death, too painful to accept; what was appealing was the figure of a romantic, crazy man, stubbornly convinced that not all was lost, and that his Beauty might still come back to life.
And it could well be that in his last years the elderly man had somewhat lost touch with reality.

But maybe, beyond all legends, rumors and colorful newspaper articles, Reed’s choice had a much simpler motivation: he and Mary had been deeply in love. And when a relationship comes to be the only really important thing in life, it also becomes an indispensable crutch, without which one feels completely lost.
In 1895, the first year he spent in the cemetery, Jonathan Reed replied to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle interviewer with these words: “My wife was a remarkable woman and our lives were blended into one. When she died, I had no ambition but to cherish her memory. My only pleasure is to sit here with all that is left of her”.

No whacky theories in this interview, nor the belief that Mary could come back from the grave. Simply, a man who was sure he couldn’t find happiness away from the woman he loved.


Pescatori di uomini


Il corso d’acqua scivola veloce e silenzioso, con il suo carico di terriccio e detriti che gli hanno valso il nome, celebre ma poco invitante, di Fiume Giallo. Dopo aver attraversato la città di Lanzhou, nel nordest della Cina, serpeggia per una trentina di chilometri fino a che un’ansa non lo rallenta: poco più a valle incontra la centrale idroelettrica di Liujiaxia, con la sua diga che fa da sbarramento per la melmosa corrente.
È in seno a questa curva che le acque rallentano ed ogni giorno di buon’ora alcune barche a motore salpano dalla riva per aggirarsi fra i rifiuti galleggianti – una grande distesa che ricopre l’intero fiume. Gli uomini sulle barche esplorano, nella nebbia mattutina, la spazzatura intercettata e ammassata lì dalla diga: raccolgono le bottiglie di plastica per rivenderle al riciclo, ma il prezzo per un chilo di materiale si aggira intorno ai 3 o 4 yuan, vale a dire circa 50 centesimi di euro. Quello per cui aguzzano gli occhi nella luce plumbea è un altro, più allettante bottino. Cercano dei cadaveri portati fino a lì dalla corrente.




Il boom economico e demografico della Cina, senza precedenti, ha necessariamente un suo volto oscuro. Centinaia e centinaia di corpi umani raggiungono ogni anno la diga. Si tratta per la maggior parte di suicidi legati al mondo del lavoro: persone, molto spesso donne, che arrivano a Lanzhou dalle zone rurali affollando la città in cerca di un impiego, e trovano concorrenza spietata, condizioni inumane, precarietà e abusi da parte dei capi. La disperazione sparisce insieme a loro, con un tuffo nella torbida corrente del Fiume Giallo. Il 26% dei suicidi mondiali, secondo i dati raccolti dall’Organizzazione mondiale della sanità, ha luogo in Cina.
Qualcuno dei cadaveri è forse vittima di una piena o un’esondazione del fiume. Altri corpi però arrivano allo sbarramento della diga con braccia e piedi legati. Violenze e regolamenti di conti di cui probabilmente non si saprà più nulla.



Un tempo, quando un barcaiolo recuperava un cadavere dal fiume, lo portava a riva e avvisava le forze dell’ordine. Talvolta, se c’erano dei documenti d’identità sul corpo, provava a contattare direttamente la famiglia; era una questione di etica, e la ricompensa stava semplicemente nella gratitudine dei parenti della vittima. Ma le cose sono cambiate, la povertà si è fatta più estrema: di conseguenza, oggi ripescare i morti è diventata un’attività vera e propria. Qui un singolo pescatore può trovare dai 50 ai 100 corpi in un anno.
Sempre più giovani raccolgono l’eredità di questo spiacevole lavoro, e scandagliano quotidianamente l’ansa del fiume con occhio esperto; quando trovano un cadavere, lo trascinano verso la sponda, facendo attenzione a lasciarlo con la faccia immersa nell’acqua per preservare il più a lungo possibile i tratti somatici. Lo “parcheggiano” infine in un punto preciso, una grotta o un’insenatura, assicurandolo con delle corde vicino agli altri corpi in attesa d’essere identificati.







Per i parenti di una persona scomparsa a Lanzhou, sporgere denuncia alla polizia spesso non porta da nessuna parte, a causa dell’enorme densità della popolazione; così i famigliari chiamano invece i pescatori, per accertarsi se abbiano trovato qualche corpo che corrisponde alla descrizione del loro caro. Nei casi in cui l’identità sia certa, possono essere i pescatori stessi che avvisano le famiglie.
Il parente quindi si reca sul fiume, dove avviene il riconoscimento: ma da questo momento in poi, tutto ha un costo. Occorre pagare per salire sulla barca, e pagare per ogni cadavere che gli uomini rivoltano nell’acqua, esponendone il volto; ma il conto più salato arriva se effettivamente si riconosce la persona morta, e si vuole recuperarne i resti. Normalmente il prezzo varia a seconda della persona che paga per riavere le spoglie, o meglio dal suo reddito desunto: se i pescatori si trovano davanti un contadino, la richiesta si mantiene al di sotto dell’equivalente di 100 euro. Se a reclamare il corpo è un impiegato, il prezzo sale a 300 euro, e se è una ditta a pagare per il recupero si può arrivare anche sopra i 400 euro.





Nonostante la gente paghi malvolentieri e si lamenti dell’immoralità di questo traffico, i pescatori di cadaveri si difendono sostenendo che si tratta di un lavoro che nessun altro farebbe; il costo del carburante per le barche è una spesa che devono coprire quotidianamente, che trovino corpi o meno, e in definitiva il loro è un servizio utile, per il quale è doveroso un compenso.
Così anche la polizia tollera questa attività, per quanto formalmente illegale.


Ci sono infine le salme che non vengono mai reclamate. A quanto raccontano i pescatori, per la maggior parte sono donne emigrate a Lanzhou dalle campagne; le loro famiglie, ignare, pensano probabilmente che stiano ancora lavorando nella grande città. Molte di queste donne sono state evidentemente assassinate.
Nel caso in cui un cadavere non venga mai identificato, o resti troppo a lungo in acqua fino a risultare sfigurato, i pescatori lo riaffidano alla corrente. I filtri della centrale idroelettrica lo tritureranno insieme agli altri rifiuti per poi rituffarlo dall’altra parte della diga, mescolato e ormai tutt’uno con l’acqua.


Anche oggi, come ogni giorno, le barche dei pescatori di cadaveri lasceranno la riva per il loro triste raccolto.


Il cranio di Cartesio


Réné Descartes è riconosciuto come uno dei massimi filosofi mai esistiti, il cui pensiero si propose come spartiacque, gettando le basi per il razionalismo occidentale e facendo tabula rasa della logica tradizionale precedente; secondo Hegel, tutta la filosofia moderna nasce con lui: “qui possiamo dire d’essere a casa e, come il marinaio dopo un lungo errare, possiamo infine gridare “Terra!”. Cartesius segna un nuovo inizio in tutti i campi. Il pensare, il filosofare, il pensiero e la cultura moderna della ragione cominciano con lui.

Il filosofo francese pose il dubbio come base di qualsiasi ricerca onesta della verità. Epistemologo scettico nei confronti dei sensi ingannevoli, perfino della matematica, della materialità del corpo o di quelle realtà che ci sembrano più assodate, Cartesio si chiese: di cosa possiamo veramente essere sicuri, in questo mondo? Ecco allora che arrivò al primo, essenziale risultato, il vero e proprio “mattone” per porre le fondamenta del pensiero: se dubito della realtà, l’unica cosa certa è che io esisto, vale a dire che c’è almeno qualcosa che dubita. Il mio corpo potrà anche essere un’illusione, ma l’intuito mi dice che quella “cosa che pensa” (res cogitans) c’è davvero, altrimenti non esisterebbe nemmeno il pensiero. Questo concetto, espresso nella celebre formula cogito ergo sum, dà l’avvio alla sua ricognizione della realtà del mondo.


I ritratti di Cartesio giunti fino a noi mostrano tutti lo stesso volto, fra il solenne e il beffardo, dallo sguardo penetrante e sicuro: dietro quegli occhi, si potrebbe dire, riposa il fondamento stesso del pensiero, della scienza, della cultura moderna. Ma la sorte beffarda volle che il cranio di Cartesio, lo scrigno che aveva contenuto le idee di quest’uomo straordinario, l’involucro di quel cogito che dà certezza all’esistenza, conoscesse un lungo periodo di vicissitudini.

Nel 1649 Cartesio, già celebre, accettò l’invito di Cristina di Svezia e si trasferì a Stoccolma per farle da precettore: la regina, infatti, desiderava studiare la filosofia cartesiana direttamente alla fonte, dall’autore stesso. Ma gli orari delle lezioni, fissate in prima mattinata, costrinsero Cartesio ad esporsi al rigido clima svedese e, a meno di un anno dal suo arrivo a Stoccolma, Cartesio si ammalò di polmonite e morì.

Il suo corpo venne inumato in un cimitero protestante alla periferia della capitale. Nel 1666, la salma fu riesumata per essere riconsegnata alla cattolica Francia, che ne rivendicava il possesso. Le spoglie, arrivate a Parigi, vennero sepolte nella chiesa di Sainte-Geneviève per poi essere ulteriormente traslate nel Museo dei monumenti funebri francesi. Lì rimasero per tutto il tumultuoso periodo della Rivoluzione. Allo smantellamento della collezione, nel 1819, i resti di Cartesio vennero portati nella loro sede definitiva, nella chiesa di Saint-Germain-des-Prés, dove riposano tuttora. Ma c’era un problema.


Durante la terza riesumazione, di fronte ai luminari dell’Accademia delle Scienze, si aprì la bara e le ossa dello scheletro tornarono alla luce: ci si accorse subito, però, che qualcosa non andava. Il teschio di Cartesio mancava all’appello. Da chi e quando era stato sottratto?

Una volta annunciato lo scandalo del furto, cominciarono a spuntare in tutta Europa teschi o frammenti di cranio attribuiti al grande filosofo.

La quantità di reperti scatenò feroci controversie: come potevano esistere più teschi, e così tanti frammenti, di una stessa persona? Ironia del destino: il dubbio, che era stato alla base del Discorso su metodo di Descartes, veniva a intaccare i suoi stessi resti mortali.

(A. Zanchetta, Frenologia della vanitas, 2011)

Si venne a scoprire che già all’epoca della prima esumazione, nel 1666, il teschio era stato probabilmente sostituito con un altro; ma nel 1819 si era volatilizzato perfino il cranio posticcio. Oltre ai due teschi, fu possibile verificare che anche altre ossa erano state sottratte, per essere tramandate per oltre tre secoli in chissà quali ambiti privati.

E il teschio originale? Sarebbe rimasto per sempre ad adornare la sconosciuta scrivania di qualche facoltoso dilettante filosofo?
Dopo essere passato per decenni fra le mani di professori, mercanti, militari, vescovi e funzionari governativi, il cranio di Cartesio riemerse infine in un’asta pubblica in Svezia, dove venne acquistato e rispedito in dono alla Francia.


Era piccolo, liscio, sorprendentemente leggero. Il colore non era uniforme: in alcuni punti era stato sfregato fino a uno splendore perlaceo mentre in altri punti c’era una spessa patina di sporco, ma perlopiù aveva l’aspetto di una vecchia pergamena. E in effetti si trattava di un oggetto che aveva molte storie da raccontare, in senso non solo figurato ma anche letterale. Più di due secoli fa qualcuno gli aveva scritto sulla calotta una pomposa poesia in latino, le cui lettere sbiadite erano ora di un marrone annerito. Un’altra iscrizione, proprio sulla fronte, accennava oscuramente – e in svedese – a un furto. Sui lati si vedevano vagamente i fitti scarabocchi delle firme di tre degli uomini che l’avevano posseduto.

(R. Shorto, Le ossa di Cartesio, 2009)



Il teschio venne dato in consegna al Musée de l’Homme a Parigi, dove è conservato tutt’oggi.
Sulla sua fronte si può leggere l’iscrizione apposta dal responsabile della sottrazione originaria: “Il teschio di Descartes, preso da J. Fr. Planström, nell’anno 1666, all’epoca in cui il corpo stava per essere restituito alla Francia“.

Ancora oggi, paradossalmente, il cranio dell’iniziatore del pensiero razionale conserva tutto l’irrazionale fascino di una sacra reliquia.