Skulls and Bones: Dr. Paul Koudounaris's 'Memento Mori'

Paul Koudounaris | Photo by Mark Barry
Paul Koudounaris in his parlor.  

Paul Koudounaris has been taking photos of dead people for over a decade. His first two books, "The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses" (2011) and "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs" (2013) gained popularity for their rare images of fantastic ossuaries and jeweled skeletons in Europe, mostly belonging to Catholic religious figures. Now, the final installment of his trilogy, "Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us" goes beyond the glamor and investigates how the living interacted with the everyday dead, and in some places, continue to today.

In conjunction with the book, the author is bringing 20 images to La Luz de Jesus for a gallery show April 3 - April 26, and while his previous books and exhibits often gave us images of skeletons in painstakingly beaded attire wearing lavish jewelry, "Memento Mori" shows how the dead function in more secular spaces such as the caves of Indonesia and Bolivia's yearly Fiesta de las Ã?atitas, when people take beloved skulls, enshrined and decorated especially for the occasion, to a local cemetery for a celebration. "Memento Mori" investigates humankind's attitude towards mortality through both public and private relationships with death, and raises the question: why has death become synonymous with finality, when in reality, it is really life that is final and death that is eternal?

With a PhD in 17th Century Art History from UCLA, Koudounaris has always been able to give images of skulls and bones a scholarly context, bringing a rare kind of reverence and academic treatment to a subject that would otherwise seem simply ghoulish. But he says his approach has changed over time. "I started out doing this stuff over a decade ago, and at that time I considered myself an art historian who also took photos. As I myself evolved that became reversed and I now consider myself more a photographer who does art history."

Mummified priests in Gangi, Sicily | Photo by Paul Koudounaris
Mummified priests in Gangi, Sicily | Photo by Paul Koudounaris

Koudounaris says that while "Empire of Death" and "Heavenly Bodies" became famous for their photos, they were really history books. "Memento Mori," in turn, is a photo book with text. "The subject matter here is obviously similar, but the approach makes it a very different book, and also much more inclusive, since we were able to include all this wonderful material from Asia, South America, etc. It can be universal rather than Western, since we're not confined to a specific narrative."

The author can't pinpoint the specific moment he had the idea to begin working on his books about skeletons. "All I know is that at some point, it went from being a hobby to being an obsession, and at that point, I began to realize that photographing all these dead people was slowly taking over my life; it was incumbent upon me to find a way to actually do something substantial with all this material."

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"Memento Mori" features photos of the Paris Catacombs, charnel houses, and modern bone memorials to victims of genocide. There are images of Catholic mummies, painted and gilded skulls, as well as skulls used as religious vessels. Perhaps the most compelling chapter on the interaction between the living and dead is about Bolivia's ñatitas ("little pug-nosed ones"), aka skulls which become adopted by the living. The practice dates back to indigenous ideas that the dead and living continue to coexist, but contrary to what one might expect, the skulls aren't those of friends or family members, but instead come from cemeteries where the dead's living responsible parties are late in their payments, or from medical schools and archeological sites. "When the skull is taken as a ñatita, the spirit centralized around it will reveal an identity directly to its owner, often in dreams," Koudounaris writes in his book. The relationships are celebrated every November 8 during Fiesta de las Ã?atitas, when the skulls are then presented with gifts as thanks for their assistance. It brings to mind the Day of the Dead, but it's not so much a celebration or death or even of the life of the departed, but as Koudounaris writes, "It is a celebration of a bond, one that is intimate and unique."

Bringing Koudounaris's entire project full circle, "Memento Mori" ends with images of the skeletons of Christian martyrs in Roman catacombs of the 16th century through 18th century. As many of these were not able to be verified as the actual bones of martyrs, and due to their waning popularity in general, many of them were stripped of their garments and their bones disposed. "Those that survive, however, are testaments to a different age, one in which death was not an impassable boundary, allowing the dead a vital role to play among the living," Koudounaris concludes his book.

The author recalls one of his most interesting and important discoveries he made as he was working on "Memento Mori." While photographing burial caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, he was aware of the local tradition of dressing and displaying mummified corpses. He asked a local guide if he knew of any mummies that he could photograph, and the guide took Koudounaris to a family who had adopted the body of an unknown little girl that they found in a cave.

"I asked the guide if it was considered at all unusual to have a mummy in the home, and he told [me] by way of reply that when he was a child, his family not only kept the mummy of his grandfather in their home, but that he and his brothers would sleep in the same bed with it, and they would dress it in day clothes in the morning, take it from the bed, and place it upright against the wall, and during the evening, dress it in pajamas and lay it back down in the bed. It was just inconceivable to me, sleeping with the mummy of your grandfather. It was one of those rare times when you just have no comeback at all. I realized then that as much work as I have done on death and ritual, I am still so very westernized, [and] there are still things that can still completely shock me and give me the feeling of unease, even though for the people involved, there is nothing wrong with them whatsoever. And that's me -- I am a guy who, when it comes to this death stuff, has seen pretty nearly everything there is to see. So as a culture, we're still a very long way off from having an open attitude towards death and the disposal of the human body."

In fact, all three of Koudounaris's books bring to mind how the idea of death has shifted so dramatically before the present. Many people have lost touch with the idea of death as a transition, and have turned it into something to be feared. Perhaps more than just being a trio of macabre books on the dead, Koudounaris's work subtly asks us to take a different, more accepting approach to death. Just as "Memento Mori" literally means "reminder of death," it's the bones themselves that serve as reminders for the living to uphold the value of life, in every part of the world.

Dr. Paul Koudounaris will be singing copies of his book at the opening reception for the "Memento Mori" photo exhibition on Friday, April 3, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. at La Luz de Jesus, located at 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. (323) 666-7667.

Ossuary in Kolin, Czech Republic | Photo by Paul Koudounaris
Ossuary in Kolin, Czech Republic | Photo by Paul Koudounaris
Skull with flowers at Fiesta de las Ñatitas in LaPaz, Bolivia | Photo by Paul Koudounaris
Skull with flowers at Fiesta de las Ñatitas in LaPaz, Bolivia | Photo by Paul Koudounaris,
St. Munditia in Munich, Germany | Photo by Paul Koudounaris
St. Munditia in Munich, Germany | Photo by Paul Koudounaris


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Top Image: Pair of skulls in burial cave in Lombok, Sulawesi, Indonesia | Photo: Paul Koudounaris

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