Bone Room Meditations III: a Morbid Interest in Bones?

February 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

When surrounded by bones it is inevitable that considerations of mortality should enter the mind; today Dr Jacqui Mulville and I discussed attitudes to the dead.

It seems odd that one might end up in a drawer in a museum one day, like a spare tablecloth or a gift stored up for a daughter’s marriage. Attitudes to the appropriate treatment for the ‘lifeless shell’ or the skeletal framework of that shell are almost as varied as human culture itself. These attitudes currently range from the focussed, emotional dissociation of scientific vision to the sensational, visceral horrors of hollywood zombie movies (via, perhaps, a spectrum of cultural attitudes including buddhist contemplations of human decay, through which enlightenment is sought).

Evidence suggests that some of our ancestors buried their dead beneath the floor; that their graves would be walked over daily, their past existences connecting with the living present through the soles of their descendants feet. This kind of burial occurred after dismemberment, bagging up, hanging the butchered corpse in the rafters to cure or sometimes after immersion in peat to tan and preserve the skin. The Romans buried babies beneath the floor. There is quite a void between these attitudes to mortal remains and the revulsion that we feel on discovery of the sort of activities that occurred at 10 Rillington Place.

Thinking about how my work relates to this complex field of associations leads me to something of an  impasse: on the one hand I am drawing on a tradition of memento mori, which connects with the buddhist tradition of contemplation; on the other I’m involved in a game of speculation and ‘What if..’ based on a form of science fiction.

The skull has become an icon for sensationalism and a logo for Damien Hirst’s international brand but the material that I hold in my hands right now is shell like and fragile, though it has characteristics more permanent than flesh. Perhaps it is time to reappropriate this image for a more appropriate, more connected view of life and death.

Apparently in Switzerland the buried are only interred for a couple of years and after that the bones are placed in communal ossuaries. The final, individual, resting place is a luxury of space that most cultures can ill afford.

In the midst of life we are in death.

The book of Common Prayer


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