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Memento Mori


The skull, along with the candle and the hour glass was once a de-rigeur accoutrement of every fully provisioned hermit – in Mediaeval Christianity anyway.

The Brotherhood of Death, followers of St.Paul the Hermit, even went so far as to sleep and eat with a skull always beside them. Their friendly greeting to one another was ‘memento mori’ – remember your death.

In Theravada Buddhism contemplation of bones is prescribed as an initial stage for those types of minds which are intractably addicted to bodily pleasures. A little exercise of the imagination is required but not so much. After all, I can feel my own skull to be just like the one in front of me. Only a thin layer of life between us.

Mexicans throw a huge party every year for grinning sleletons.

So, this skull is certainly valuable as a reminder of destruction. As a souvenir.  But how could it be destroyed itself?  It will turn to dust anyway if I do nothing. The active process is to to conserve it, to protect it in plastic, or mummify it in bandages, to handle it with gloves or bathe it in incense. All the activity, all the expense, is to delay or deny the process of decay. Was this person so cared-for when she could actually feel anything?

And what about those skulls we have pushed past today, padded with flesh? Should we cradle them all, and sing to them? Should we honour them? Or do they have to die first?

To leave a dead body to just rot in the street, to disregard its decay, is clearly callous. But to observe and appreciate the inevitable process of destruction?

What if we could watch the mechanisms by which this skull is broken down and reconstituted as wind and rain and soil and sky? Would we be aware of all those millions who have lived already before us? Would we more keenly feel the ancestors who embrace us in their mingled bodies, who enter into us and constitute our own bones and our children’s bones? Would we feel the qualities they embodied reverberate through us?

How should I honour the deaths that give me life? Where are the muscles of this person, the fleeting expressions of laughter and disgust, the breath? Where are the words that must have once sounded out in some language? Right here perhaps, in what is now moving. Should I let these parts join together again in the swirl? Release this pious stagnation into an ocean of matter? It’s destruction will be a nesting place for mice, a mask for moles, a cup and a drum for the beating rain. Call lichens to prize apart its filaments and open its memories. Carnivorous snails, make space for water to leach through its crystalline matrix and free its cavernous thoughts to think wild blackberries.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick Cohen permalink
    30/06/2009 12:44 pm

    Maybe it doesn’t need destroying or preserving. A skull without the contents it is designed to protect has no purpose (other than of anatomical interest) so is redundant. So maybe it doesn’t even need consideration.

    Mmmm… what do you think….? (Glad to see you’re still doing some weird and wonderful things. Hope we can catch up some time after your release). Best wishes on your quest.

  2. Cosi permalink
    30/06/2009 9:32 pm

    I’m glad to see Dan (see first thread) has voluteered to take the skull for further analysis 🙂
    but your post has got me thinking or rather imagining the skull in a garden, decomposing, being taken back by nature, but visible, visitable at intervals to see the process and be reminded – “memento mori” or “tempus fugit”….

    and if really stuck, why not compile all the known information about the skull, if not provenance, then exhibition history etc, together with this blog and sell it. would that be too crude, too cynical?
    or just realistic to raise some museum funds….

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