Paul Koudounaris has traveled to more than 60 countries to photograph ossuary tombs, decorated skulls, and various other macabre artifacts. This week marks the release of his third book, Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us. Unlike his previous two books, in which the photographs were captive to the text, Memento Mori is led by the visuals: spellbinding images of decorated skulls, elaborate burials, and other death-related customs from around the world. This reflects the evolving nature of how the author sees himself—as a photographer who does art history, rather than as an art historian who does photography, as was the the case ten years ago.
I spoke to Koudounaris about the book, how our perception of interaction with the dead is culturally influenced, the paradoxical nature of corpse-desecration laws, and why he considers today's North Americans to be the weird ones with respect to how they treat the dead.
VICE: Tell me about how and why you distinguish between "death" and "the dead."
Paul Koudounaris: To me, that's an important differentiation. The dead are those people who have ceased to be among the society of the living, but death is where we draw the border between them, and that varies from culture to culture and it varies in terms of whether it's a malleable border or a firm border. Death can be a soft border, or it can be a hard barricade. It can be a fortified barricade like the Maginot Line through which thou shalt not pass. That's what it has become in Western culture over the past 100 years. The dead don't come on our side, we don't come on their side, and if you're trying to talk to them or you're trying to interact with them there's something wrong with you. You're up to no good.
Is it different in other cultures?
In most cultures, historically and cross-culturally, death has been constructed with a soft border and it's possible to have this dialogue, whether it be a physical dialogue or a literal or figurative dialogue. If you look at those people in Bolivia, if you look at the people who perform certain rituals in Madagascar, if you look at those people from Indonesia or the Philippines, and if you look at the history of Europe where those charnel houses were a liminal space where the living and the dead could interact.
Let's talk about Memento Mori. It seems the book is broken up into sort of thematic sections: bones used as decorations, mummification, decorated bones and skulls. Why do you think that places so far away from each other developed similar customs?
I think the answer to that is simply that there is this universal need for most people to make this connection to the dead—a need to have the dead as part of the society of the living. It's been around since prehistoric times. There are skulls found in Jericho—the earliest Neolithic settlements—that were decorated and obviously displayed out in public, so this is been going on since Neolithic times.
Most of the places you take us to are monuments to the past, which seem to also reflect our current changing attitudes toward death.
There are so many things that play into [how we think about death today]. A lot it has to do with the modern cult of individualism and the cult of progress—capitalism itself predicates against wanting to have the dead around because we are a future-oriented society. We are not a contemplative society anymore. Push the dead away or bury them away or make them the simulacra of the living so we can concentrate on the future without this tie to the past.
Interestingly, there aren't any North American sites in the book. Why do you think that might be?
Because it's not really part of our cultural heritage. Remember something about the USA: Nowadays, there's a huge Hispanic influx into the United States, but we were founded as a post-Reformation Protestant nation. And granted a lot of the United States was… colonized by Spaniards. But the Spaniards who were coming to this country—who were Catholic, and the Catholics had a relationship with death—never had the geographical and spatial constraints [that Europe had] when they were founding cities and colonies in this country.
So a big reason why Americans historically didn't get very creative with burials is because they didn't have to worry about limited real estate?
Part of the reason that the charnel houses existed and the dead were brought up is because they would run out of space in these small towns. So of course the dead would have to be charnel, they'd have to be exhumed. If you have a Spanish fort with 20 people living in it and a bunch of Indian slaves in Texas, you're never going to run out of space. So part of the reason even the Catholics in this country never embrace that aesthetic is because they never had that. They never had that motivating factor to have to exhume the dead.
Viewing the beautiful images in your book from all these other times and places that have such radically different burial rituals made me question what is and isn't a "normal" way to interact with death. Was that part of what you were trying to do?
Part of the reason I wanted to do this book is to draw from so many different cultures and periods to show people that we're the weird ones. Those people in Bolivia with those skulls at the cemetery, those people in Indonesia with the skulls—they're not weird. They are what people have been doing throughout history and what many cultures still do. We're the weird ones because we push the dead away. We ghettoize them. Our context is highly idiosyncratic and it's eccentric when you look at the way the dead have been represented and received within society. And so these places were not created as places of fright and fear. And they were not created as houses of horror. That's just a modern conception and I think a lot of people are able to respond to that when they see the photos and the way I choose to present them. No one's ever come to me and said, "This is horrible."
Since I started writing this column, corpse desecration laws have become one of my interests. It occurs to me that many of these customs you examine might be illegal were they to be practiced in the US.
One thing that I've noticed is that the cultures that have a closer relationship with death oftentimes are not as horrified by what people do with the human body. Intuitively, you'd think since [in the US] we've pushed the dead away we really don't care what you do with them—but actually, we push them away and we're really concerned with what you do. I remember asking one lady [at a Bolivian skull festival] one time, "Where did you get your skull?"
"We're going to keep it— it's my new friend, you know, and I'm going to commune with and talk to it," she replied. Here in the United States, if someone had a skull and said, "I don't know, I found it in a bag on the street." My God, they'd call a SWAT team!
There's a place in Indonesia where they take the bodies and they lay them flat on a grate and they kind of let them mummify naturally and and they just let them fall apart. If a dog carries away a leg, then good for the dog. A dog needs a leg. They're part of this natural cycle—but to us, that would be absolutely horrible.