Obsession. It's in the bones. Sometimes the obsession is all about bones.
Paul Koudounaris, an art history professor at Cal State Northridge, recently saw his book, Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, issued by Thames & Hudson, esteemed British publisher of illustrated art books. Empire of Death is 224 pages of images of, and notes on, places shut off from modern life. It depicts a netherworld in which the architecture of bone holds sway, shot through with images of ossuaries rarely or never before seen by the public.
The most famous example is the catacombs of France, brimming with countless bones and skulls beneath Paris' streets. The remains line shelves, some grouped haphazardly, others arranged with the utmost care. These ossuaries date back to the Black Plague, when bodies piled up so quickly that the French had to bury them in those catacombs just to keep up.
Empire of Death is the result of five years of Koudounaris' travels around the world, visiting and photographing ossuaries, many of which had fallen into disrepair and out of cultural memory — like the one that was living out its life quietly as a toolshed for a church's gardener. Some are represented only in archival images — one in Malta was hit by explosives by forward-thinking, skull-bombing warmongers during World War II.
The list of included ossuaries reads like a Seven Wonders of the World of the dead: the Ossuary of the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron in Metéora, Greece; the Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland; the Memorial Stupa for the Victims of the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
It was traveling that brought Koudounaris in contact with ossuaries. “I had been staying at a hostel outside of Prague, and I had found this absolutely incredible ossuary — one of the finest I've seen anywhere — and I spent about three hours there,” he says. “And nobody knows about this place. I have this desire to research things, but I just never found a topic that really piqued my curiosity. If there was one place that was so amazing, could there be others?”
Koudounaris admits, somewhat casually, “My great-grandfather was a grave-robber. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt. During the early 20th century, there was still a trade in mummia.”
Mummia, a centuries-old homeopathic powder, is made from ground-up mummies. Take that, GNC.
“He worked with apothecaries, and what they would do was steal partially buried bodies. They would disinter them, take them, cover them in tar and bury them out in the Sahara. Then they would sell the body parts so apothecaries could grind them up so people could snort them. It's an ancient medicinal tradition.” Koudounaris pauses. “So in a way, I wonder if this book was, in some way, completing the family line.”
Photographing the halls of the dead is not without its pitfalls. “I met this absolutely fascinating monk in Italy,” Koudounaris says of his liaison to one ossuary. “I had gone there to take some photos for a couple of days, and he takes me into this sex club, and it's very uncomfortable — he goes off into this private booth and I snuck out.” Returning the next day to take more photographs, Koudounaris discovered the monk had more tricks up his dirty sleeve. “I go to this club with this guy again, and I looked down under the table and he had shackled me to the chair. He waggled his finger at me and said, 'Yesterday, you ran off — but now you're staying here with me!' ”
When he was going through all these places, making pilgrimages to all these cathedrals of bone, Koudounaris says, “The one feeling that I constantly had — and it was a profound feeling — was one of total timelessness. Timelessness and unity. I'm standing and staring at the past — but at the same time, I'm looking at my own future. Things that passed and still to come are all united in some kind of cycle.”
Or, as the inscription on one German ossuary puts it: “What we are, you will be/what you are, we once were.”