~posted by Selby G.
“It is difficult to put words to the smell of decomposing human. It is dense and cloying, sweet but not flower-sweet. Halfway between rotting fruit and rotting meat.” ― Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
With a description like that it is not difficult to understand why most living people do their best to avoid dead people. Many cultures see the deceased as something to be hidden: covered by a white cloth, not fully shown in news photos, and wholly inappropriate to display in the front parlor. Other cultures have a different view of dying, and the bodies we leave behind. Here are some books that give you a glimpse into the culture of death.
Momento Mori by Paul Koudounaris. Stunning photos show what different cultures around the world do with their dead. From native Peruvian festivals, celebrating deceased ancestors by parading their heads through the streets, to silent Buddhist monks preserved for posterity. The Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies, also by Koudounaris, focus on human bodies as religious/spiritual relics. Some skeletons are dressed in fine clothes or have their names painted on the foreheads, while others look like someone took a bedazzler to them. In any case, the urn that holds Great Grandpa will look pretty boring in comparison.
Books such as Mary Roach’s Stiff, Caitlin Doherty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Working Stiff by Judy Melineck give us a behind the scenes look at death in the United States. From how medical schools acquire cadavers, to how hot to make the furnace to reduce a body to ashes, and how fake the autopsies are on CSI, these books give an in-depth look at death in modern America. As for me, I am much more interested in how other cultures and our ancestors viewed and dealt with dead bodies. Or pieces of them.
In Severed: The History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, we focus in on human heads as trophies, talismans, and objects of scientific study; which includes the dubious scientific theory of phrenology. Phrenology was all the rage in the late 1800’s and a lot of corpses lost their heads because of it.
Phrenology may have been one reason to steal someone’s head but it certainly wasn’t the only reason, or body part, to be separated from its owner after death. Rest In Pieces by Bess Lovejoy chronicles the misadventures of famous people’s bodies and their parts.
Speaking of keeping other people’s body parts around, In Death Lamented by Sara Nehman teaches us about the tradition of mourning jewelry. The most popular pieces of mourning jewelry were lockets and rings stuffed with bits of hair from the deceased, but it didn’t stop there.
If none of these books creep you out then maybe you need an ‘in person’ experience. For that, check out my post on Morbid Museums.