Well as usual, I am reading and thinking about death on this beautiful Saturday. Specifically, I’m dipping into Philippe Ariès, The Hour of our Death, a famous old tome written in 1977 (the hour of my birth) in which, over the course of some six hundred-odd pages, Ariès traces Western culture’s attitudes toward Death from ancient pagan times to the nineteenth century. It’s the kind of history book that doesn’t get written anymore; it’s also the kind of history book from ages past where the author plays pretty fast and loose with dates and citations. So obviously, it’s right up my alley. I love this speculative shit from before the internet, where the sheer impossibility of verifying all information gives you the leeway to make stuff up. How oppressive are these new scholarly books, more footnote than text!

Anyway, so, it’s often hard to follow what era he’s talking about, as he moves seamlessly back and forth between, like, the year 564 and something Michelet wrote. Also, it’s obviously translated from the original French, and is somewhat clunky. Still, what a fun beach read this is!

The book is separated into all kinds of categorical sub-sections. Images of death; the history of the cemetery; pagan vs. christian attitudes towards the corpse; eschatology and judgment; etc.

He gives this fascinating, lengthy history of attitudes toward corpses and burial places. It’s great because everybody knows Foucault’s work in this realm, but he mostly focuses on what happened near the end of the 18th century, when everyone freaked out and they moved all the cemeteries out of town, which Foucault attributes to new attitudes that worked to de-naturalize death and make of it this weird alien state that people tried to ignore, whereas before it was obvious that everyone died and no one was that stressed out about it. What’s cool about Ariès’s book is that he goes WAY further back in time than Foucault does, and he shows that actually, before cemeteries existed in the hearts of towns (which is Foucault’s historical starting place), they were actually sites of heavy anxiety and everyone wanted tons of distance from them. So apparently, if these two French weirdos are to be believed, there was a several-thousand-year period where everyone was super stressed out by dead bodies and tombs, and then a several-centuries-long period where nobody was stressed out by them and everyone was cool with living amongst them, followed by our current era, which began in the 18th century, and in which we are once again stressed out by corpses and tombs. To which I say: ??????!!!!!!! MEGA INTERROBANG!

Apparently from the Roman Era to like the 4th century people (meaning, very generally, Western people, although Ariès also talks about parts of Africa–where, after all, a lot of Romans and Old Testament types were hanging out (St. Augustine! etc. Who I realize is not strictly speaking an “Old Testament type” but you know what I mean, “a long-ass time ago”)) are very averse to corpses and to being anywhere near dead people. Dead people were considered a contamination, and were buried outside of town. Only as Christianity really starts taking hold and developing do we see attitudes about corpses changing. And actually this makes sense when you think about it. Because what’s the big deal in Christianity? RESURRECTION. If you believe that there will be this great day where Jesus returns and all the dead bodies come back to life, then you’ll be super into dead bodies. You’ll think they are sites of power and transformation and potential magic. So from like the 500s to the 18th century, “the dead ceased to frighten the living, and the two groups coexisted int he same places and behind the same walls.”

NOTE: this does NOT apply equally to all dead people. If you committed suicide, or were an excommunicate, or a criminal, or you’d died from being executed, or even just if you happened to die suddenly and without warning, this was seen as evidence that you were a suspicious type, and people did not want to hang out near your corpse the way they did the corpses of the righteous. So there also emerged different burial practices for good people and bad people, and thus great fields on the outskirts of towns became haunted terrifying places you didn’t go near at night, because all the corpses of people un-watched-over by God were strewn about there!!

In fact, being buried in a certain way is a big deal to Christians because their thoughts on the resurrection were very literal–your literal dead body would be literally revivified, and you’d wake up and get to smell the flowers again and enjoy drinking wine, etc. So for this reason they were VERY uptight about desecration of graves–anything that violated the constitution of the skeleton on earth was seen as endangering that body’s ability to be re-constituted on Judgment Day. Heavy. So also by just dumping criminals and Jews and prostitutes out in the field to rot, they were being even more vindictive than you’d at first assume. Like now those people don’t even have the option of rising from the dead. Being executed, in fact, was thought of as a double punishment–the first being getting executed, which sucked, but then the second was even worse, because by not being properly buried you were also consigned to eternal sleep, never to wake again. GNARLY

As the literalness of these ideas slowly, slowly faded, we see that they got less and less stressed out by the sanctity of the tomb, and indeed after awhile they start digging up corpses themselves, and making holy relics of them, and divvying up various bones.

And I wonder which came first–the slow fade of literal resurrection as a belief, or the overpopulation of cemeteries that necessitated a certain kind of cavalier approach to corpses? Which enabled which? Ariès doesn’t say, but his description of this cavalier attitude is delightful to one with my morbid sensibilities:

So as they stop being afraid of dead bodies, they start getting really into being near them because there grew this perception that a righteous dead person had a lot of power and magic surrounding its corpse, due to its future ability to go to heaven. So not only do they start burying people right there in town, they start even burying them INSIDE THE CHURCH. And over time, churches became living mausoleums—Ariès says that in old churches that didn’t get restored in the 18th century you can still see how “the whole floor space of the church is a compartmentalized cemetery, and no matter where the faithful turn, they walk on graves.” He describes paintings from the middle ages that depict funerals, which are happening inside of churches: the funeral procession heads toward the altar, and off to one side the gravediggers pry up a stone in the floor, under which is bare earth, which they dig into to make a new grave. Indeed, we can still see how each stone in an ancient un-restored church has a hole bored in the middle of it, for the gravedigger’s crowbar.

Okay, so if you are like me, this is making you ask the question: wait, if these churches are hundreds of years old, don’t they run out of room, in terms of places to put bodies? And the answer is NO, because this new cavalier attitude (perhaps “cavalier” is the wrong word: it’s just different) means you can keep reusing the same graves over and over!!! To whit:

Around the 14th century it became common practice to dig up whatever old bones were down there, and pile them somewhere else, so you could stick a new corpse down in there. They thought of the earth as a kind of corpse-processing machine–indeed, certain graveyards were thought to hold miraculous properties whereby they processed dead flesh much more quickly than other graveyards, and people would, like, agitate to be buried there, and graves were more expensive there, etc.

What did they do with all the bones they dug up? They made artful piles and stacks of them, called “ossuaries,” which were visible to churchgoers–not hidden away or anything. Not considered garbage, but also no longer quite considered corpses. Somewhat sanctified, and interesting, but not that big a deal. Paintings and stained glass from this period often represents graveyards where the ground is strewn with bones and skulls, and there’s one where some saint is walking around stuffing skulls in a sack, and even sometimes there’s actual mummies just laying around. And remember even HAMLET, where he’s just casually picking up a skull and talking to it. Historically accurate! The gravediggers back then were supposed to hold an ever-changing map of the graveyard in their heads, so that they knew which plots were probably done processing corpses and which plots were still too fresh to dig up yet. The gravedigger in Hamlet was doing a good job–digging a grave in a spot where only bones were left. He’d pick out all the bones and chuck them in a pile and then somebody would add them to the artfully arranged ossuary. Taking turns in the grave!

Periodically, starting around the early 14th century, they’d dig MASS GRAVES, probably due to plague epidemics where too many people died at once and the normal graveyard procedure couldn’t accept them all. The bodies, according to Ariès, were

piled in huge common graves, veritable pits thirty feet deep and fifteen by eighteen feet in area, which contained between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred bodies; the smaller ones between six hundred and seven hundred. There was always one open, and sometimes two. After a few years (or months), when they were full, they were covered over and other pits were dug nearby, in the part of the atrium that had been left undisturbed the longest.

Here’s a quote from 1418, about a plague outbreak in Italy somewhere: “so many people died in such a short space of time that it was necessary to dig big pits, in each of which were placed thirty or forty persons, piled like bacon, with a few handfuls of dirt thrown on top.”

But then in keeping with the horrible rise of capitalism, this practice, normally reserved for plague times and famines, became the standard in the 16th century for POOR PEOPLE. Rich people still got stone tombs in cemeteries underneath arches and ossuaries, and poor people got dumped into the open mass graves, which apparently wolves were always digging up, not to mention grave-robbers who supplied doctors and scientists with cadavers (oh, the history of medicine! you are so depraved. See also: Frankenstein). Note: Mozart is buried in one of these pits.

Okay but anyway back to the ossuary concept. Basically for hundreds of years there was this “double burial” concept. You got buried when you died, and then once your flesh was gone, you got a new burial, where you were removed to a place made specifically for bones

As early as the fifteenth century, and perhaps earlier in the towns, people began organizing this enormous mass of bones that was perpetually being heaved up by the earth. They were displayed artistically on présentoirs over the galleries of the charnels, or on the porches of the churches, or in small chapels next to the churches that were designed for this purpose

Even after ossuaries were outlawed in the 19th century, some regions apparently still used “skull boxes,” where you could peer in and see the skulls of corpses.

It was important to SEE. The charnels were exhibits. Originally, no doubt, they were no more than improvised storage areas where the exhumed bones were placed simply to get them out of the way, with no particular desire to display them. But later, after the fourteenth century, under the influence of a sensibility oriented toward the macabre, there was an interest in the spectacle for its own sake. The bones and skulls were arranged around the courtyard of the church so as to form a backdrop for the daily life of those sensual times.

This leads Ariès into this long, wonderful disquisition on THE MACABRE, which of course I love. Apparently macabre subjects start appearing regularly in iconography around the 15th century, although of course we can find macabre stuff all throughout history, for example this completely insane quote from Odillon of Cluny in the 11th century, warning against having sex with women:

Consider that which is hidden in the nostrils, in the throat, in the bowels: filth everywhere…We, who would be loath to touch vomit or dung even with our fingertip–how can we desire to clasp in our arms the bag of excrement itself?


Around the 15th century DEATH starts begin depicted as a “danse macabre,” a term I associate with dancing skeletons thanks to Saint-Saëns, but which apparently initially described THE DECAY OF A CORPSE. The macabre dance of a corpse rising and falling as it fills with and expels gas; wiggling around as various vermin burrow into it; omg. So these people were morbidly fascinated with physical decay. This fascination ended with the skeleton, which as we’ve seen they were incredibly blasé about. Around this time we start seeing Death depicted as a rotting corpse, called a transi. As early as 1320 there’s a fresco by a pupil of Giotto which depicts a transi wearing a crown: “it is a figure of derision being pointed out by Saint Francis.” HA HA HA

Now we see lots of images of Death as a rotting corpse, who threatens other rotting corpses who lay at its feet. Sometimes, in fact, “one cannot tell whether the figure is a ghost, the spiritual self or double that exists for each individual, the symbol of his underground destiny, or a personification of the force that destroys all living beings.”

Ariès: “An atmosphere of anxiety seems to have taken hold.” Uh…..YEAH

Ariès amazingly links this iconographic change to a seemingly unrelated one, which is sort of the move away from collectivity into individuality that is also associated with capitalism and, seemingly obliquely but actually obviously, Christianity, if that sentence made sense, which I doubt. One thing I think people don’t often ponder, and that I teach in my classes, and that Ariès is engaged in exploring, is the invention of Heaven and Hell, and the utterly profound effect this new notion has on the way we think about everything. For example, there’s no real afterlife in the Old Testament–Judaism doesn’t have these notions of judgment and punishment. There’s vestiges of “Hades,” of some sort of shadowy afterlife where maybe dead people go, but it’s not thoroughly thought-out, and is divorced from notions of morality. There’s obviously some idea of a place where God and the Angels are, but it’s not carved out as a paradise where souls get to hang out posthumously. We don’t get that stuff until the New Testament–so, incredibly recently, relative to human history–where, like, in Matthew there are suddenly all these mentions of Judgment and punishment and going to Hell, and having to do certain things in order to go be with Jesus in Heaven. Also of course RESURRECTION becomes a big deal in the New Testament, as I’ve said.

Examining iconography–so, cultural documents–across the ages, Ariès makes some interesting observations. For example, in early Christian images and writings, the Second Coming is really divorced from the idea of Judgment. Bodies are depicted as rising from the grave, arms outstretched, and heading up more or less joyfully to where Jesus is up in the sky. There are no images of Hell or Judgment. Early Christians’ ideas of death and resurrection were that you died, and then you basically were just asleep for however long until the Second Coming, at which point the Just get to wake up and experience pleasure and consciousness again, while the wicked just keep sleeping. I believe this is still what Jehovah’s Witnesses think–at least, that’s what some guy I used to work with told me, and he was a Jehovah’s Witness (<---pretty Rousseauldian mode of scholarly inquiry! Remember when Rousseau is like "Chinamen evolved from Egyptians, because my friend went to Egypt and says they all look like Chinamen" or whatever. p.s. this is also how Malcolm Gladwell constructs knowledge, the asshole. "One time a Korean plane crashed so that means Koreans would rather die than directly confront a superior." "My friend likes pizza so everybody likes pizza." Making fun of Malcolm Gladwell is the new making fun of David Denby and/or Anthony Lane, which has gotten too easy) Across the centuries, though, judgment and Hell start creeping in. Starting in the 12th century and continuing up through about the 16th, according to Ariès, Christian iconography starts revealing "the new anxieties stirred in man by the discovery of his destiny." I love this, because I'm obsessed with the way Christianity introduces this really heavily teleological way of understanding life, history, the afterlife, the self, really everything. The difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament in this regard is profound. In the space of a couple thousand years, people got so GOAL-ORIENTED. Salvation! Working toward the goal of Heaven! Also apocalypse--Time became linear, and thus there must be an END. So apparently from the 12th to the 16th centuries, depictions of the Second Coming start superimposing notions of Judgment and Hell (Matthew stuff) on top of the trippy psychedelic Revelations stuff where, like, Jesus is surrounded by rainbows and beasts. Also, across this time period, "Hell" in depictions of Judgment Day starts taking in more and more kinds of people. At first, "all believers were saints," and only unbelievers were shown falling down into Hell. But during this period, more and more we see all kinds of people, EVEN MONKS AND PRIESTS, being consigned to the flames. Belief is no longer a guarantor of salvation! People are getting so nervous! By the 13th century, apparently "the idea of judgment was now predominant," in iconography. The Second Coming is now represented as a COURT OF JUDGMENT, where Jesus sits on a judge's throne, and there are SCALES in front of him, and the apostles are arranged around him like a court. Judicial imagery! So along with this rise of judicial imagery in perceptions of the afterlife, one story Ariès traces is that of the rise of the BOOK in all this iconography, which I find particularly compelling, as I also teach a lot about the slow spread of literacy and the printing press and all that, not to mention Julian Jaynes and how he thinks the technology of writing actually transformed the literal neurological way our consciousness functioned. So along with this growth of Hell and Judge imagery that gets really terrifying, increasingly the BOOK takes center-stage as a potent symbol. The book starts representing this linear, teleological explanation of an individual's life: BIOGRAPHY. Ariès digs into the changing words used to describe the book (which, to be fair, is also a potent symbol in scripture) where the deeds of men are written. For a long time this book is called a "census," and is more of a conceptual document "of the universal church." Once we get into the 13th century though, it starts being called a "register," which Ariès says is the "sign of a new mentality":

The actions of the individual are no longer lost in the limitless space of transcendence or, if you prefer, in the collective destiny of the species. From now on they are individualized. Life can no longer be reduced to a breath (anima spiritus), an energy (vitus). It consists of the sum total of an individual’s thoughts, words, and deeds.

Indeed, the book starts becoming not just any old book but specifically a book of ACCOUNTS, with accounting columns–good on one side, evil on the other. Bookkeeping and the accounting terms of financial transactions start being used to explain and explore Judgment Day! BUSINESS AND CAPITALISM!

The new bookkeeping spirit of businessmen who were beginning to discovery their own world–which has become our own–was applied to the content of a life as well as to merchandise or money.

Ariès links these new concepts of being judged on the basis of every deed you’ve ever committed–which, due to the New Testament and Jesus’s new-style laws, now also include every THOUGHT you’ve ever had–to a growing terror of death that he claims wasn’t really present in ancient times. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that once you have the idea of HELL, death takes on a horrifying aspect it might not have had before, back when dead people just went to sleep, or went down to mope around in Hades.

And now we’re scared of cemeteries and corpses again.

Well, see you later

Oh also there’s this incredible stuff for you to enjoy. Documentation about that weird historical period where people weren’t uptight about corpses! When I imagine the middle ages I pretty much picture every single person walking around with a bag of bones or scalps or somebody’s ring finger in their pocket

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4 Responses to DEATH

  1. Mary R says:


  2. freddy says:

    Eeee! Reliquary of a prince as transi, holding his own heart in his hand!

  3. Matthew says:

    We humans are evolutionarily pre-programmed to abhor the dead bodies of our own species. It’s a natural reaction, helping healthy individuals avoid fatal pathogens.

  4. Hugo says:

    Hello! Recently discovered this blog and have spent many enjoyable hours reading the archives. Having done so, I’ve noticed you’re rather keen on zombies! May I recommend a 7-minute film called ‘Cargo’ from Tropfest, an Australian short gilm festival. Available on YouTube..

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