Tag Archives: Kutna Hora

Everything you wanted to know about Skulls and Skeletons

Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and AccumulationsSkulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations by Christine Quigley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was waiting for someone to pull all this information together into one place! Quigley’s introductory chapter collects all the statistics about the factors (body makeup before death, burial practices, temperature, soil composition) which determine how long bones can survive. While all the facts and figures are scattered throughout a multitude of sources, this is the first time I’ve seen all the information laid out in a coherent, comprehensive fashion. That alone would be worth the price of the book.

But wait…are you curious about museums in the US and throughout the world that amass and analyze bones? Quigley quotes her copious correspondence with curators about their collections and the crises they face. She describes sacred spaces decorated with bones (full disclosure: even quoting my essay on the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora from Morbid Curiosity #3), Hythe Church, the Paris Catacombs, St. Mary’s Monastery in Sinai, the Mütter Museum, the National Museums of Health and Medicine, and the Vietnamese trophy skulls brought back by American servicemen.

A great deal of the book discusses in various ways the impact of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and its effect on collections of indigenous bones both in this country and elsewhere. While Quigley’s horror at the loss of the information contained in these native bones is quite clear, she doesn’t shy from the often horrific (and sometimes murderous) ways in which the native skeletons were collected. With so many collections in flux—or in jeopardy—across the world, Quigley’s book takes on an urgent sense of documenting a reservoir of information on the brink of evaporation.

Drawing on sources formerly reviewed in Morbid Curiosity and a vast array of personal correspondence, Quigley provides an invaluable compilation, ranging over topics from archaeology, defleshment and preparation of skeletons, the sale of human bones, institutions which collect and examine bones, the Bone Room, the Body Farm, historic sites (including the Little Bighorn battlefield and the Dickson Mounds Museum), the Cappuchin catacombs, etc., etc. You must own this book. You can pretty much open it to any page and become absorbed.

Get your own copy at Amazon: http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=cemettrave-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0786438886&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

This review initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.

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You can follow Christine Quigley’s amazing and fascinating blog at Quigley’s Cabinet.

A cemetery book for kids?

Corpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History Of BurialCorpses, Coffins and Crypts: A History Of Burial by Penny Colman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although this book is a Junior Library Guild Selection—meaning that the text is written at a level suitable for children—the chapter headings seemed intriguing (Defining Death, Understanding Death, What Happens to Corpses, How to Contain the Remains, Where Corpses End Up). In her preface, though, Colman wrote of attempting to avoid the queasiness with which a reader might approach discussions of death. That was a warning to me. I want the dirt on death: the facts, the history, and lots of pictures.

The illustrations in this book are worth the price of admission. A photo from the Library of Congress depicts a surgeon embalming a solider during the Civil War. Another from the same source shows a Native American scaffold burial in 1912. Colman photographed a grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which is covered in seashells, “a tradition brought to America by enslaved Africans.” One page of photos traces the development of tombstone adornment in the U.S. A more recent grave sports two parking meters, both permanently set to read “Expired.” The most beautiful photographs in the book come from the ossuary near Kutná Hora in Czechoslovakia where human bones are used to create an enormous chandelier and a family crest. Stuff like that is more of a guidebook to me than a reference work.

Colman spends too much time for my taste on deaths in her experience, from her beloved Grammie to her great uncle Willi. Still, she does pass on some knowledge about death that I was unaware of. The Egyptians originally used a type of stone in their coffins that they believed had the power to eat flesh, hence the term sarcophagi, “flesh-eating.” The use of “potter’s field” to refer to a graveyard for paupers traces back to a field near Jerusalem where potters dug clay. The Jewish High Priests purchased it with the 30 pieces of silver returned by Judas. The ground was used to bury strangers. During the French Revolution, lead coffins were unearthed and melted down for bullets. A tree grows behind Harriet Tubman’s grave, planted due to a tradition brought here by Africans. They believed that if the tree thrived, the soul must be thriving also. Colman discusses methods for outwitting premature burial and the ages at which children accept the finality of death.

Unfortunately, large passages of this book are quoted directly from How We Die, Death to Dust and other references. It felt to me as if Colman had rushed to finish the book, not taking time to research things in person. It made me wonder why I wasn’t reading Death to Dust itself, instead of this abridged version.

However, as a book to introduce children to the fascination death holds, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts is harmless. One of my favorite passages is a quote from George Bernard Shaw about his awe at watching his mother’s cremation: “The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored flame, smokeless and eager … and my mother became that beautiful fire.” If kids don’t fall in love with death after that, there’s no use in trying.

Here’s the link to Amazon: Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial

This review comes from Morbid Curiosity #3.

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