After our visit to Il Cimitero degli Inglesi, I read the little booklet available from the cemetery office. It said that many of the people buried in the “English” Cemetery were in fact Italians, who had been persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. Challenging the Pope’s authority in Italy in the 19th century had been a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and also refusal to be buried in sanctified ground. I wondered if the Swiss Evangelic Church had ever been allowed to bless the land of the cemetery it oversaw.
In the sea of sculpture that stood on this little island of the dead, the most amazing monument marked an Italian’s grave. A larger-than-life skeleton brandished a scythe, about to slice down a clump of stone lilies. The Reaper wore his shroud like a cloak, tossed jauntily over one shoulder. The raw bones of his shin and thigh peeped out at the bottom. A rag blindfolded his eye sockets but didn’t mask his grimacing teeth. I’d never seen anything like him. I haven’t been able to discover any information about Andrea di Mariano Casentini (1855-1870), but clearly Mama and Papa had some message to give the world when they lost their child.
In America, parents mark their children’s graves with teddy bears or toy cars. In the 19th century, when Casentini’s monument was created, Americans chose lambs (to connotate innocence) or broken rosebuds (to symbolize lives ended too soon). Nowhere have I seen Death, in all his glory, standing over American children.
I discovered the Mutter Museum in the 1990s because of the lovely morbid calendars my local bookshop sold. The calendars featured amazing, thought-provoking photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin, Rosamond Purcell, and Arne Svenson, taken in the collection of the medical museum. Those incredible photos, in all their glory, are assembled in this book.
Unfortunately, the calendar photos by William Wegman are included, too. The inclusion of the dogs mocking the pose of Chang and Eng’s post-autopsy death masks or stuffing their heads into a pelvis still strikes me as disrespectful to a shocking degree.
The text that captions each photo is full of fascinating information, though: enough so that it makes me want to return to the museum. The essay that introduces the museum could have easily been longer. The essays at the back of the book that detail items in the museum’s collection was far and away my favorite part, even though I love the photographs as well. My only complaint is that the final section wasn’t longer. I want to know about everything the museum owns.
The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
19 S 22nd Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103
Phone: (215) 563-3737 Founded: 1858 Number of interments: several hundred Open: 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed: Thanksgiving, December 24, December 25, and January 1 Admission: General $15, Military and Senior (with ID) $13, Student (with ID) and 6-17 years $10. Children under 5 are free.
What makes a place a graveyard? Is it bodies interred in dirt? If that’s the case, then the USS Arizona Memorial isn’t a cemetery, despite what the National Park Service says. Is it the presences of markers standing over graves? The African Burial Ground didn’t cease to be a graveyard simply because it was forgotten and covered over. Is it a graveyard if it contains the residue of dead humans – like the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum or Westminster Abbey? Do the bodies have to be whole? Are the Paris Ossuary or the Capuchin Catacombs of Rome or the Bone Church of Kunta Hora graveyards? What about places that used to house bodies — like the Catacomb of St. Sebastian or the Atrium of St. Maclou — where all the bodies have been removed? Do they stop being cemeteries once they’re empty?
Everything on the list above has been featured as a Cemetery of the Week here on Cemetery Travel. As you can see, my definition of a graveyard is broad. The way I define cemeteries or graveyards, people or bits of people or the cremains or mummies of people must rest – or have rested – on the site for a period of time. A murder site is not a graveyard, unless, like the garden in Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, it becomes a permanent shrine.
With this broad definition of Cemetery of the Week in mind, we turn to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which has been described as “America’s finest museum of medical history.”
The Museum after remodeling in 1986. Photograph by Jack Ramsdale. From a postcard sold at the museum.
The Mütter is the legacy of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a fellow at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. In the 19th century, medicine wasn’t taught as it is now, with every budding young doctor able to dissect a donated cadaver. Body snatchers – and medical students themselves – did provide a limited number of practice corpses, even in the US, but since embalming would not become widely spread until the decades after the Civil War, bodies were dissected by the professor at the front of the room while students looked on from theater seats. Dr. Mütter made it his mission to collect preserved body parts and wax models that could be used again and again to teach medicine.
When Dr. Mütter passed on, he left his collection to the College with the stipulation they provide a museum building, hire a curator, and continue to add to the collection.
The Museum has acquired 23 adult skeletons since 1863. Only seven of these were on display in 2002 when the Mütter Museum book by Gretchen Worden was published. The others were kept in the storerooms to be studied.
Photograph by Jack Ramsdale, from a photo postcard sold in the museum.
Among those on display are a 7’6” giant who stands beside a 3’6” dwarf. At her feet in this postcard photograph is the skull of her child, whose head was too big to pass through her pelvis. Even though the doctor crushed it before the child could be born, it could not be delivered the usual way and a cesarean was performed. The mother died three days later.
Mary Ashberry had lived in a house of prostitution. Perhaps there was no one to claim her body. The giant who accompanies her came to the Museum with the stipulation that “no questions be asked” that might identify him, which leads me to wonder if his family didn’t know he was missing.
In 1973, the skeleton of Harry Eastlack came to the Museum as a donation after his death. He’d suffered since childhood with a condition that made bone grow in his muscles and other connective tissue. He’d hoped that the study of his skeleton would lead to a cure for the disease, which afflicts as few at 300 people worldwide.
The Museum purchased the skull collection of Dr. Joseph Hyrtl, which arrived in Philadelphia in 1874. The 70 skulls included representatives of “all the tribes of Eastern Europe” as well as two Hollanders, Pacific Islanders, and more. Hyrtl’s catalog claimed, “It is easier to get the skulls of Islanders of the Pacific than those of Moslems, Jews, and all the semi-savage tribes of the Balkan and Karpathien valleys. Risking his life, the gravestealer must be largely bribed.”
This casual attitude toward the theft of these skulls – many of which are marked with names, birthplaces, occupations, and causes of death – inclines me to treat them with reverence, to consider the Mütter Museum their grave. It’s an honor to be able to visit them, so one should show proper respect.
Coming up on Saturday, October 27: The Mütter Museum’s Annual Day of the Dead Festival. Come celebrate this traditional Mexican holiday with an all-day event at the Mütter Museum! Decorate sugar skulls, enjoy traditional food and drink, and visit the Museum!
Photos from The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
Saturday, June 2, 2012 from 8-10 p.m.
Articulated Gallery/Loved To Death
1681 Haight St., San Francisco (415)551-1036
Named one of the ten best books of 2011 by London’s Evening Standard, The Empire of Death by Dr. Paul Koudounaris was a ground-breaking historic study and photo documentary of a lost chapter in sepulchral culture, the decoration of churches and other religious sanctuaries with human bone. The author spent five years uncovering this forgotten past to produce a masterpiece of macabre art in its own right, with hundreds of sumptuous images of many sites which had never before been photographed or opened to the public.
Articulated Gallery/Loved to Death will present the first ever show in the San Francisco area of the original, oversized images from the book. The author will be on hand at the opening to sign copies of this fascinating book, and discuss his study of funerary culture. He has generously contributed two framed, gallery-quality photographic prints to be given away in a free raffle that night.
These exceptional images transcend their very morbidity, and force the viewer to assess the borders at which life and death, and beauty and the macabre intersect.
For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
For my birthday last weekend, my husband Mason bought me a book I’d only seen mentioned on the internet. We were in the Wacko store in Hollywood and I missed it the first time I looked over the rack, but he sent me back to give the highlighted new books another look. That time, I picked up the book without even cracking its cover. I wanted it so strongly that my arms quivered as I clutched it to my chest.
It’s called The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. On its cover is an amazing photo of the bones of Saint Pancratius standing in gilded armor. Inside it’s so full of color photos that the book is really heavy. There are essays early charnel houses, the “Counter-Reformation Macabre,” “Spiritualism and Mythology in the Bone Pile,” and a chapter on “Ossuaries as Commemorative Sites,” which includes the skulls taken from Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
I waited to page through the book until we got back to our host’s house. It’s filled on one amazing place after another. There were a lot I’ve visited — the Cappuchin catacombs of Rome, the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora, the Paris ossuary — but I’ve never gotten so close to the bones or taken such lovely photos.
There were so many, many places I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit: the mummies of Guanajuato, the Cappuchin catacombs in Palermo, and the catacombs of the monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru. And all the places I’ve never heard of before: the Capela dos Ossos in Campo Maior (Portugal), the Crypt of St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe (which I didn’t realize was in England), the Chapel of Skills in Czermna, Poland. I was almost ill with envy that the author and photographer Paul Koudounaris had been able to take such a world-spanning journey to see so many lovely and thought-provoking things in person.
Some of the photos were intense, even for me: the plague crucifix covered in running sores, the bug-eaten corpses in the Chiesa dei Morti in Urbania. I had a moment of vertigo as I tried to tally up all the skeletons displayed in these pictures. There are a lot of dead people in this world on display.
There’s nothing like a memento mori to brighten a birthday. The Empire of Death is one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten.
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