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The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses


Paul Koudounaris

Hardcover: 224 pages

Thames & Hudson

ISBN-10: 0500251789

ISBN-13: 979-0500251781

290 photographs, 260 in color



Is it ever appropriate for a reviewer to gush?  I hope so, because I don’t think that I can avoid it.  I decided to review Paul Koudounaris’s The Empire of Death as I thought it could be a perfect choice for Halloween gift giving.  Published by one of the most renowned art presses, Thames & Hudson, I was prepared for a lovely coffee-table book with many pretty pictures but rather short on ideas.  I was quite pleasantly surprised when I discovered that not only was the photography stunning, but the images were accompanied by well-researched, insightful text.

The breadth of the research, with Koudounaris’s travel to over a dozen countries with dissimilar cultures like the Czech Republic, Egypt, Cambodia and Peru point out just how odd it is for contemporary western culture to find ossuaries and veneration of remains to be somehow macabre or even at all strange.  For most of human history dying has been a transition rather than a finality.  Veneration of bones, especially skulls, is an ancient human practice with painted specimens having been dated to 5-7,000 BCE, and since we continue to visit these sites part of us may still believe there is something to that.

The birth of Protestantism or more precisely the Counter Reformation brought on a “golden age” of charnels.   The protestants viewed what they saw as the “worship” of bones as, at best, macabre romanticism.  Catholics, clergy and lay to differing extents, saw the piles of bones as symbols of penitent spirituality and connection to the past.  In the 17th century, dedicated crypt chapels and ossuaries decorated with sculptures of bones became popular.  Along with the rise of more the spectacular displays of remains there was renewed popularity of relics.  The ecclesiastic hierarchy used relics as a way of rewarding individual churches for support, explaining why Munich is said to have more than any city outside Rome.  The Bavarian city was a bastion against rising Protestantism in the German states; relics brought pilgrims, money and power.  To supply this need, Koudounaris notes how pope and clerics would “prayerfully descend” into Rome’s catacombs in order to restock the supply, which would then be “authenticated” and sent to the provinces.

The 19th century and its skepticism turned these sites into curiosities of the grand tour.  The author shows how and why secular attractions were built out of catacombs (Paris) and decommissioned monasteries (Sedlec).  His use of travel narratives helps us to understand that these sites became suspicious in the minds of an increasingly sophisticated public.  That disapproval, combined with locals’ superstitions about such things as remains communicating winning lottery numbers or the identity of future spouses, convinced the clergy that these collections of bones had out lived their positive impact and many were reinterred.

The final chapter on conservation and preservation will strike a chord with those who have only monuments of stone, not bone, to care for.  Often these charnels are damaged just by the micro-environmental changes that large numbers of tourists bring, something as simple as a change in humidity can lead to severe degradation.  On the other hand, tourists are the significant revenue streams for most of these places, how are boundaries and regulations created and maintained? Koudounaris wisely points out that rubbing skulls (like doing stone rubbings), over time changes objects and that “[t]his is less an act of vandalism than testimony to the power such a site holds over the popular imagination.”  The author also reminds us intentional vandalism and theft have been occurring in these sites for centuries, it isn’t a modern phenomenon.  Maybe it would be best for us to acknowledge human nature and work on security measures and education rather than simply decrying the decline of civilization.

Throughout all of this is some of the best photography I’ve encountered in death-related art.  Within the copy there are thumbnails of each image that is referred to, allowing the reader not to have to flip back and forth, text to art. This is certainly an idea that should be used more often in all sorts of books, allowing the reader to concentrate on either the argument or images and Koudounaris’s artwork is such that you can easily get lost in it.   I can only recommend looking at the pretty pictures upon buying the book, going back to read the text and then returning to truly appreciate the amazing art.  The photos of the piles of bones and skulls are often overwhelming, taken in such a way to represent scale accurately but not coldly, allowing the photographs to finish telling the story that the writing has begun.  It is the artist’s work with the smaller scale that truly mesmerizes, though.  The portraits of individual remains, weather jewel encrusted martyr’s skeletons, painted burgher’s skulls, or unadorned individual’s bones have a profound intimacy to them that manages to be both unsettling and peaceful.  I can’t imagine a better homage to what the builders of these sites wanted to communicate. 

For all that, I do have two small quibbles:  the first is the choice of font.  I know this sounds like rather an odd criticism, but while the font is lovely and reflective of the artistry of the book, it can be distracting in initial reading.  In the end I did acclimate to it, but a reader shouldn’t have to do that.  The text size is also small.  Very small.  I’m quite sure that the typeface could well have been enlarged by a point or two with no loss of aesthetic integrity in page layout.  If the text of the book were less insightful I’d not complain, but Koudounaris discusses so many significant themes in such a perceptive way it seems a shame to miss something critical because one has to struggle to read the print. 

Oh, and that second quibble?  The appendix listing the sites and their access availability has me planning a very long trip.


One response to “The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses

  1. I bought his new book – Heavenly Bodies – when I was in LA. It’s a smaller size, but the font is easier to read, except for the photo captions. It’s filled with lovely, lovely photos, though. I’m looking forward to diving into the text.

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