A New Way of Looking at Death: 'Memento Mori' From Around the World

In Orla, Italy, confraternities of death were charitable brotherhoods that provided burials for the poor and indigent. Group members who requested it could be mummified and be put on view as a statement of prestige and remembrance. . (Photo: Paul Koudounaris/Courtesy W. W. Norton Books )

Author and photographer Paul Koudounaris spent a decade traveling and compiling death-related sites, both historical and modern. By delving into a world many people find scary or disturbing, two books were born: "The Empire of Death" and "Heavenly Bodies," covering a cultural history of ossuaries and charnel houses and a study of lavishly decorated Baroque skeletons from Roman catacombs, respectively.

Now there's a third: "Memento Mori," which means reminder of death, includes photos taken at more than 250 sites in 30 countries, and it's a little different. "My first two books had been laid out according to the narrative, but 'Memento Mori' was the opposite. Here, the photos came first, then I added captions. Photos tell their own story, which is why it has that format," says Koudounaris, who has a PhD in art history from the University of California, Los Angeles.

The decorated skeleton of St. Mundita of Munich.
Skeletons from the Roman catacombs of early Christian martyrs were transported to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, though not many survive today, as it can't be proven that the decorated skeletons are really from the saints themselves, so most were stripped of their jewels and discarded. From 'Memento Mori': 'St. Mundita of Munich (above) became a favorite of spinsters, and older, unmarried women flocked to her as their protectress.'. (Photo: Paul Koudounaris/Courtesy W. W. Norton Books)

The photos are a beautiful look inside another way of thinking about death; but some might look at them and think they're sad, disturbing or scary. Those latter responses likely come from how Western societies deal with death and dying (or, more correctly, don't deal with those topics in ways people in the past did).

Koudounaris writes in the introduction to the book, "Most typically in Western society, death represents a kind of border. Irreversible and impenetrable, it is a boundary beyond which we cannot glimpse or transgress. This attitude is — cross-culturally — in a minority. It has been far more common to consider death as a transition. As Cicero remarked, ‘That last day does not bring extinction to us, but change of place.' When death is conceived of in this way, as a kind of passage or metamorphosis instead of a barrier, an interaction is possible beyond the divide. The dead can still have a role to play as part of a social group, and need not be hidden away or stigmatized."

In Mondsee, Austria, the remains of a local abbot were decorated with jewels and place on a high altar in a church there.
In Mondsee, Austria, the remains of a local abbot were decorated with jewels and placed on a high altar in a church. (Photo: Paul Koudounaris/Courtesy W. W. Norton Books)

Taking this view of death helps explain how it's quite sweet — not macabre — that a little boy and his brothers on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi slept with a mummy of their beloved grandfather for years: "Because we loved him," as he told Koudounaris. Or that in Bolivia, people keep the skulls of loved ones, friends and acquaintances as companions with whom they might pray or ask for counsel or pray. Called natita (a nickname that translates as "little pug-nosed ones"), this is a common practice which isn't considered strange at all. The dead are — literally — still among the living.

If that all sounds a little far out, ruminate on this: "It can take considerable reflection to understand that extent to which death is not a set term, as we often pretend, but a culturally relative notion," writes Koudounaris. Other ways of seeing death as simply a state change, from inhabiting a body to being alive in a different way. If you are raised to see and understand dying in this way, dead bodies are no longer something to be fearful of, to shut away or banish to a leafy plot far away. Many Americans believe they are watched over by guardian angels or spirits which may or may not be relatives or friends who have passed on: Keeping memento mori is simply a more physical version of that same idea.

A mummy found in Salar de Uyuni, Boliva.
From 'Memento Mori': 'The tradition of mummification in South America is as old as any in the world. Placed in seated postures, they face east, towards the rising sun.' This mummy was found in Salar de Uyuni, Boliva. (Photo: Paul Koudounaris/Courtesy W. W. Norton Books)

When I asked Koudounaris if it was difficult to access the skeletons and mummies he found for this book, which contains many images never before published, he said sometimes he is invited to observe a town or family's memento mori, but is turned down when he asks to photograph them — which he fully respects. Most of the time, though, people are happy to share their stories and do allow him to take pictures of something with personal and spiritual significance to them, because he comes to them with a humble attitude of: "I want to learn from you, because I find something very important here," he explains. "If you are sincere, they like that and respect that."

Koudounaris relayed a story about a tiny village in the Czech Republic where very few people still live. After he finally found the priest by asking around, he made a request to take some photographs. The priest was taken aback and was a bit incredulous: "You've come all the way from L.A., because you want to photograph our thing?" Koudounaris said. "'Yes,' I told him. In our rush to modernize we have thrown away the past, and taking pictures like this allows us to see something we are missing out on. Something subtle and beautiful."

In Rome, Italy, a 17th-century Capuchin crypt is decorated with bones and mummies.
In Rome, Italy, a 17th-century Capuchin crypt is decorated with bones and mummies. (Photo: Paul Koudounaris/Courtesy W. W. Norton Books)

"Memento Mori" isn't meant to shock or scare. Though I will admit, before I understood the context I found it a little creepy — this is, after all, the stuff of horror movies and haunted houses. But upon reading Koudounaris' accompanying text, I realized my reaction was due to our culture's unhealthy relationship with death.

Putting sick relatives away in hospitals and homes rather than seeing them through their passing as a loving family moment to be shared is not the healthiest way to deal with dying — for anyone. Involving the living, even kids, in the natural process of death has been found to be psychologically healthier. Death is, after all, a part of life. Being afraid of it, hiding it, and pretending it doesn't exist only amplifies its negative aspect, growing fear and exacerbating discomfort at the end of life.

Lombok village, Sulawesi, Indonesia: Dead bodies are placed in highly decorative open coffins, called erong that hang suspended on a local mountain wall or inside a cave. Like the dead themselves, the coffins decay, and the bones then fall to the ground.
Lombok Village, Sulawesi, Indonesia: Dead bodies are placed in highly decorative open coffins, called erong, that hang suspended on a local mountain wall or inside a cave. Like the dead themselves, the coffins decay, and the bones then fall to the ground, where visitors rearrange them later, sometimes keeping families together. The bones combined with the local geological formations create 'stunning displays,' according to Koudounaris. (Photo: Paul Koudounaris/Courtesy W. W. Norton Books)

"There's this understanding that you will pass on but you will be remembered, which is for most people, very comforting. I went back to Indonesia and attended one of those rituals where they take the mummies out of the tomb and they dress them, and the last day, a guy comes in, and says, 'Oh, I forgot to mention that my dead grandmother is in the hut next to you. Would you like to go in and see her?' So we went in and talked to granny, continuing the exact relationship they had before," says Koudounaris. Having this inclusivity be part of the way your culture sees death is less stressful for the living because they aren't losing someone in the same way, and it's also less stressful for the dying — in some ways, they aren't going anywhere.