The impulse to invest significance in the bodies of the dead has usually been a religious one. Yet even my atheist father cared about the treatment of his remains, says Sarah Murray
Clay figures mark the Day of the Dead in Mexico: during the annual holiday, people pray for and honour their deceased relatives and friends
“Listen, darling,” my mother told me in her no-nonsense voice. “I know how to do this—I’ve done it with soap powder.” Using a pair of kitchen scissors, she was snipping away at a thick plastic bag to allow its contents, tightly packed inside a steel pot, to flow out more freely. I’d suggested that if we made too large an opening in the bag, its contents would spill out in a rush. My mother, however, was in household-chore mode and was convinced her method would work. She was right, and suddenly our task became much easier. But before we could continue, we found ourselves on the floor, weeping with laughter at the absurdity of what she had just said. For the dust we were decanting wasn’t soap powder. It was once a living, breathing human being: my father.
It was the day my mother and I had picked to scatter his ashes. We’d embarked on the rather curious task of getting them into a bag as soon as we had taken off the lid of the urn and realised they would be impossible to release from within the plastic container the funeral home had stuffed inside it. This procedure was probably not something my father had anticipated. But for everything else, he’d left instructions.
In a letter, he had asked that we scatter his remains around a church in a beautiful Dorset village near our family home and near where two of his closest friends were buried—not an unusual request, you might think. Except that he was a lifelong atheist and had always insisted that the “organic matter” left after a person takes their last breath (his included) had no significance whatsoever. That person had gone.
Looking down at his ashes, I wondered if he was right. How much of him was in that bag? What exactly are we, after our heart stops beating—person, or object?
As visitors lined up this summer to see the medieval casketed relics of saints at the British Museum’s “Treasures of Heaven” exhibition, I was reminded that our intense relationship with human remains is a longstanding one. For the faithful, the “organic matter” of saints is potent stuff. Wander through Europe’s ancient churches and cathedrals and, on an altar or in a side chapel, you find gilded caskets, elaborately decorated and with glass sides permitting a glimpse of what lies within. That’s often something decidedly grim: an elbow splinter, a blackened fingerbone or, if you’re lucky, a whole skull. They aren’t much to look at. But since the dawn of Christendom, fragments of dead martyrs and saints have been venerated as holy objects.
Europeans aren’t alone in their fondness for sacred remains. A Muslim pilgrimage shrine in Srinagar, India, houses a whisker—displayed on important religious days—believed to have come from the beard of the Prophet. In Sri Lanka, the town of Kandy is home to the Buddha’s tooth. In an inner chamber of the Dalada Maligawa (temple of the tooth), it sits in a glass case surrounded by gold and silk decorations and is put on display every five years (when I saw it some time ago, I thought it looked surprisingly large and rather yellow).
I’ve always been fascinated with the way we not only venerate mortal remains but credit them with remarkable powers, whether to cure or contaminate, to administer comfort or wreak revenge—or even to play detective. Bleeding corpses were once thought to indicate the presence of a killer, for instance, as revealed in Shakespeare’s Richard III. At murdered Henry’s funeral procession, Lady Anne sees his wounds “bleed afresh” and declares that a “deed, inhuman” has provoked this “deluge most unnatural.”
We even allow corpses to stand up in court. Well, perhaps not stand—in the 9th century, in one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of the Catholic church, Pope Formosus was yanked from his grave in Rome, dressed in vestments and propped up in a chair for a trial in which he was accused by a successor, Stephen VI, of usurping the papal office. At the “Cadaver Synod” the unfortunate and undoubtedly malodorous body was found guilty. Three of his fingers were removed—those used for blessings, symbols of his authority—and his body was hurled into the Tiber.
When not being venerated or prosecuted, human remains can also become part of the décor. I first discovered this on visiting Sedlec, an ossuary in a Bohemian chapel near the Czech town of Kutná Hora. Strung between stone arches like grisly party decorations were festoons of human remains, while hanging from the ceiling was what must be one of the world’s most unusual chandeliers. Femurs dangled from its arms. Mandibles empty of teeth formed its chains. Candles nestled in rosettes of pelvic girdles, their holders made from the most iconic of human remains: skulls.
From empty eye sockets, the skulls stared blankly out at me. Who were they? Where and how had they lived? What had been their hopes and fears? Mostly individuals who died during the Black Death, these people seemed utterly remote to me. Yet, I thought, when flesh, fashion, mobility and speech are gone, we all look pretty much the same. Memento mori: “Remember you will die.” That seemed to be the message the bones here were sending me; a scrap of intelligence from the other side.
Paul Koudounaris might agree. In his new book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (Thames and Hudson) he documents, with stunning photographs, the places in which human remains reside (many of which are closed to the public and have never been photographed before). “Pushed into the footnotes of European religious history,” he writes, “charnels were once part of a dialogue with death that has now fallen silent. For the people who constructed them, however, the dialogue was loud and clear, and the dead were not expected to be mute.”
So is this what we hope to gain from the dead—a continuing conversation? If so, our dialogues with them remain as loud as ever. When in 2008 (the 40th anniversary of his death) the body of Padre Pio, the controversial Catholic saint known for his stigmata, was put on display in a glass casket, a million or so people visited the shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo, southern Italy.
But as western Europe becomes increasingly secular, many people have turned away from these kinds of devotions. Still, this hasn’t stopped us from transforming physical mementos into hallowed objects. Today we’re becoming ever more eager to find ways of keeping the remains of our dead relatives and friends close at hand.
I saw this in action a few years ago in Orlando, Florida, at the American death care industry’s biggest annual road show, the National Funeral Directors Association expo. A few years before, this show would have been filled largely with displays of coffins, urns, hearses and embalming equipment, as well as firms offering “pre-need” financial plans. At this one, however, a good quarter of the booths were for companies selling everything from rings whose diamonds were made by extracting carbon from cremated remains to lockets designed to hold tiny portions of “cremains.”
Craftspeople who once had little to do with the funeral industry are finding a new market for their work. So now, you can have your loved one’s ashes baked into the glaze of a ceramic vase, mixed with oil paint and turned into an artwork or trailed in delicate swirls through a glass paperweight.
These objects, it seems to me, are the creations of a species gripped by an inescapable bond: that between a living and a dead individual. Perhaps as we become less certain of spiritual eternity, we’re starting to seek it on Earth, looking for solace in something more tangible—a life captured forever in a locket or a ring. And as ceramic vases, oil paintings or paperweights, the dead invade the space of the living.
The question is, do these objects help us accept loss, or are we simply unable to let go? It’s something I thought long and hard about after my father died and was returned to us as a pot of ashes. Rational thought told me the pot contained nothing more than crushed pieces of calcium phosphate. But in some ways, as my mother and I set off in the car to scatter his remains, I felt I was in his presence. Dismissing the significance of “organic matter” is not that easy—as even my father, in his final request, was forced to concede.