Hyenas and Handcuffs: an interview with Paul Koudounaris

Paul Koudounaris is an art historian and the author of ‘The Empire of Death’ and ‘Heavenly Bodies’. Since completing his doctorate at UCLA he has travelled the world photographing some of the most visually stunning funerary practices involving human remains. In the past, Paul has conducted numerous interviews about his work (read some here, here, and here), but hopefully you’ll find this one a little bit different.

AA: Hi Paul. Welcome to Deathsplanation. I was wondering, if you wouldn’t mind telling us about your first memorable experience with death?

PK: Well, this is maybe a curious answer, but my first memorable experience(s) with death weren’t real–they were in dreams. When I was very young, I used to have these dreams of my own headstone, in a graveyard. I used to dream of various things that might be written on it, and then I would wake up and think about it, to determine the best inscription. I was maybe five years old at the time, and I wanted to be a scientist. I didn’t even really know what a scientist was, I just thought it seemed like a “cool job” from what I could see on TV and in the movies. So I eventually told my mother that I had been thinking a lot and that when I died, would she please write “A famous scientist” on my tombstone. Coming out of the blue from a five-year-old child, I suppose this is rather alarming, or at least it was to my mother, who thought I had either lost my mind or was suicidal, or both. Anyway, these dreams persisted for some time, of just different possible tombstone inscriptions for me.

St. Felix was a presumed martyr from the Roman Catacombs who arrived in the monastic church at Gars am Inn, Germany in the seventeenth century, and was a popular local miracle worker. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

St. Felix was a presumed martyr from the Roman Catacombs who arrived in the monastic church at Gars am Inn, Germany in the seventeenth century, and was a popular local miracle worker. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

AA: That is actually quite wonderful (I am sure a psychologist would have a field-day with that story). I think it actually brings up a very interesting point. It seems that children are naturally curious about death, but in many cultures (especially Western cultures) this curiosity is discouraged. There are increasing ‘death-positive movements’ (I know you are quite involved with one, The Order of the Good Death), which encourage people to engage with this natural curiosity. Why do you think they’ve gained such traction in recent years?

PK: To be honest, I’m not sure to what extent I agree that these movements have gained traction in recent years. They have gained notoriety, for sure, but I am not sure what that has translated to. Remember, in the age we live in, there is a niche for everything, and people who are interested now have the wherewithal to find that niche and participate in it. And of course, we live in a very ego-maniacal age, so people tend to think that if they’re into something, it’s a big deal and a whole bunch of other people are into it too. But this doesn’t mean these niches didn’t exist before. In terms of destigmatizing death in Western Culture, that niche certainly has existed for quite some time, it was just a very quiet discourse because it was isolated. And really, the whole “death positive” thing kind of comes across as a secularized version of the Ars Moriendi–that was the biggest “death positive” movement there ever was in Western Culture, and it’s centuries old. So I think it’s less a matter of something new going on, as it is a matter of modern technology and social media allowing it greater expression, and people who are interested in that niche now being able to find it. In terms of how big it is, it’s really not–it’s still a very small movement.

“…the whole “death positive” thing kind of comes across as a secularized version of the Ars Moriendi…”

Well, that’s my very lengthy caveat. But also, yes, things have changed drastically since, say, the 1950s, in terms of the willingness of our culture to talk about death openly. The big cornerstone of that, at least in the USA, was a book called The American Way of Death–it was a big deal at the time, and it must be 50 years old by now, but it’s still a fascinating read. That book really called many things that were typical of American death and mortuary practice to account. I don’t think anyone ever really followed up on the potential of that book though. I have always thought that, in terms of the study of death, the person who would really make an impact and change things would not be a sociologist, or someone like me who studies aesthetics, or the people who want to change mortuary practice. That person would be a social economist. Think about this–death is a business, that has become an adage, but no one has really sat down to figure out, how especially in the industrial revolution, death became the business that it is. The corpse basically became commodified–we live in an economic system in which death eventually became a commodity (exposing that was the point of The American Way of Death), it was something people could sell and profit off of. The way that economic change affected how we perceive death is vital to understanding our relationship to it in modern culture, but no one has really sat down to figure out that evolution. Like I said, it would probably take some kind of social economist with a background in death studies, but I think there would be a lot to be learned from such a pursuit: death became commodified, but though what mechanisms, and how and why did that change our cultural relationship to it?

“I am not really into “death” at all. I am into life.”

In terms of the Order of the Good Death, I am actually not involved at all–I just do talks at the events Megan and Caitlin organize. They are wonderful people, who are doing very interesting things, and I regard them both very highly. But I’m not part of their group, and they have never asked me to be involved. One thing I try to explain to people, and this sometimes confuses them–I am not really into “death” at all. I am into life. I got into studying death to learn more about life by studying that border, that intersection between the two . . . and I wonder if the bigger job ultimately if we are to be truly liberated as a society is not to get people to be OK with how they die, but to get them to be OK with how they live.

St. Pancratius in Wil, Switzerland was a presumed martyr from the Early Christian era who was believed to have been a soldier, so he was dressed in a custom suit of armor. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

St. Pancratius in Wil, Switzerland was a presumed martyr from the Early Christian era who was believed to have been a soldier, so he was dressed in a custom suit of armor. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

Now, interview readers, you get some options – a bit like a ‘choose your own adventure’ interview! I asked Paul a question following on from this, as I was terribly interested in knowing the answer (even though it didn’t follow the planned trajectory of the interview). However, as it does make the interview longer, you can either read that question below, or go straight to the next question.

AA: I have to ask, do you see any similarity in the way that you now profit off of the dead, through your books, to the commodification of death you just spoke about? Or do you think a lot of it has to do with the approach and intent behind the action which results in the in profit?

PK: This is a great question to which there is no simple answer. Well first . . . it’s funny about my relationship to the “death” community . . . as I said in the last answer, I am not really all that interested in death, I am much more interested in life, and I wanted to study the intersection between the two and the way it was expressed in macabre aesthetics. My work of course got drawn very firmly into the “death” category, not just because of the bones, but especially because I wrote a book which is titled Empire of Death. In truth, that was not my title, and I despaired over that title and to this day I don’t like it. I wanted to de-death-ify the book in fact, and keep death out of the title, since to me it’s not a book about death, it’s a book about macabre beauty and its role in salvation. I had a perfect title in French, Ossements–in French it just refers to things constructed out of bone, and because such things are usually found in or around churches, it has a vaguely sacred connotation. Perfect, one simple word, expressing exactly what I was after–but there is no exact equivalent in English. So I struggled and struggled to come up with some simple title that would capture that one French word, but I never did, and then one day I got an email from the publisher that said, oh, by the way, your book is being titled Empire of Death. All I could do at that point was grit my teeth and say, ah crap.

But regarding profiting off of death . . . before we get into the meat of your question, let’s change the wording to “capitalize” instead of profit–that word nearly brought me to hysterics. Absolute truth: would you like to know how much money I have made off of the book Heavenly Bodies, which was in pretty much every newspaper in the UK when it came out, in big name magazines and some of the world’s most trafficked websites, and even made it into the top 200 in sales in both the UK and USA (albeit for only a brief period, but for a book like that, that’s incredibly high)? The answer to that, aside from a modest advance I got two years ago is . . . zero. I swear I am not lying. As of the date I am writing this answer, February 18, I have made not one cent beyond the advance. Now, I have made money off the photos, and gallery shows of them, but as for these books, very little–regarding Heavenly Bodies, the publisher says they will calculate some royalties at the end of next month and at that time presumably I will finally see some money, but thus far, profiting is hardly a word that I would use.

“I hate capital, and I love the things I study, they mean everything to me…”

But have I capitalized? That’s a different and trickier matter, and the answer, much to my chagrin, would have to be yes. Not in  an abusive or intentional way, and I am certainly not making a lot of money, but yes I have capitalized–by default, since I am creating products (books and photos) which have a market or capital value, I am creating commodities that appeal to the public fascination with death. But we need to put that in a socio-economic perspective. We live in a sick society. We’re all addicts, and the drug of choice is capital. We’re all capital junkies, we can’t live without it, and our lives are completely structured by it, so pretty much anything we do within our system is a form of capitalization, and pretty much everything is a commodity. To think that one is creating anything at all within our system, and is not capitalizing or creating a form of commodity would be ridiculously naive. So yeah, by default, I have capitalized on the commodification of death. But look, even the people who are championing alternative forms of burial and different approaches to death are creating commodity around death. Well, unless they are doing so for free, anonymously, and without receiving any credit . . . they are creating goods or services which have a capital value within our economic system. Anyway . . . I am sure this was not where you intended the question to go since we are now talking not about death, but by how our lives are structured by an economic system, but by default, yes, I have capitalized on the commodification of death. I hate capital, and I love the things I study, they mean everything to me, but in the end I made a commodity out of them, it was the only way to be able to present them to the public.

Painted skulls like these, found in the charnel house in Hallstatt, Austria, were once common in small rural parishes in throughout Austria, Switzerland, and Bavaria. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

Painted skulls like these, found in the charnel house in Hallstatt, Austria, were once common in small rural parishes in throughout Austria, Switzerland, and Bavaria. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

AA: I can already tell that I’m going to be gutted when I have to draw this interview to a close. I think with those last answers you’ve just created an entire doctoral programme for a university. Given that you didn’t become “a famous scientist” I am curious to know which came first for you: creating art or studying life/death – or did you always intend to use them together?

PK: Well, I certainly didn’t start out intending to study life and death in an intertwined way. How far back do you go? I was always interested in macabre things, after all I was a child who would sit around thinking about what would be best on his tombstone. I was out of school before I went back and got a PhD. At that time I was doing mostly assemblage sculpture and art installations. I used to use a lot of taxidermy animals, I would construct rooms out of them, in bizarre and unlikely fashions. I absolutely despise hunting, yet I have a huge number of taxidermy animals–to a lot of people this would seem to be hypocritical. But to me, when I would acquire these things it was almost like adopting an unwanted, abused pet. Someone had killed this animal, taken its life, and then discarded it, and then some ram’s head winds up in a flea market or junk shop. How senseless and profoundly sad. Well, I can’t restore them to life, but to me the point of gathering them up and creating surreal environments in which they were incorporated was to recontextualize them. They were no longer dead animals, they became pieces in an environment that was in effect its own organism. I couldn’t bring them back to life, but I could recontextualize them so they had some purpose other than sitting around being dead. That was what I was after as an artist and why I was attracted to using dead specimens, it was this metamorphosis, this transformation that could occur when death became sublimated to a new aesthetic organism, making the whole vital in spite of the parts. So I guess that was also a way of studying life and death together, even before I went back and got a PhD and eventually started studying the skeletons and charnel houses.

“How senseless and profoundly sad.”

AA: Going back to what you said, that you’re more ‘into’ life than death. I know that much of your work revolves around the subjects of death, but I am really interested in the experiences you have with the living at the sites where you photograph. Have you had any stand-out experiences with the individuals who curate and care for the subjects you have been photographing around the world?

PK: Oh God yes. I always say that there are always two books I could write, and the ones I don’t, which are about the experiences of the project, are pretty much always the better ones. And maybe someday I will sit down and write those books. Where do I even begin on that. The Italian monk who took me to a striptease club and then handcuffed my leg to the table so I couldn’t leave. Staying in a Russian monastery on Mt. Athos, with a monk who was hiding from the law due to an illicit pharmaceutical deal, and where I had to get up before dawn each morning wearing some kind of burka thing and stand before an abbot who looked like Rasputin and would drone on and on at me in Ukrainian, a language I don’t even understand. The guy in Indonesia who sleeps with the mummy of his grandfather. Or trying to get to this burial cave in Ethiopia and having to feed a hyena chicken out of my mouth in order to please the guide. Yeah. I have had rather a few experiences out there. You know, one thing I believe quite firmly is that in pursuing knowledge, the knowledge itself becomes secondary to the process, because the process is what creates life experience and forms character. That’s why I hate researching stuff online or in libraries–the process is so flaccid. There are no hyenas or handcuffs.

This mummy in Burgio, Sicily is one of many created across the island from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, when it was common practice to mummify loved ones and have them displayed in a church crypt. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

This mummy in Burgio, Sicily is one of many created across the island from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, when it was common practice to mummify loved ones and have them displayed in a church crypt. (Photo with permission of Paul Koudounaris)

AA: I am sure that I speak for a great many people when I say, please write that book someday. Now, a selection of photographs from your books are going to be exhibited shortly in Manchester as part of the ‘Encountering Corpses’ event and I know that you’re working on another book for 2015, but I gather you’re also working on a little pet project that’s perhaps a… different?

PK: Yeah . . . the unwritten book is really much more exciting. I toyed with the idea of writing a very different kind of book than the ones I have written, something that was half travelogue/half history, but the problem there is I wanted to adequately respect the spiritual value of the sites, and that might get lost when I am talking about being handcuffed to a table in a striptease club, you know? Manchester–yes, I am showing some photos and doing a talk there for an event called Encountering Corpses at MMU in March. I have another book coming out next year that will be a more global version of what I have been doing–it will include the material I have picked up in Asia and South America.

But the pet project (cute) you mention is about pet cemeteries. I have over the last several months become somewhat obsessed with our relation as humans to animal mortality, and especially pet cemeteries. Not much has been done with that topic. It’s an extremely rich topic, which vacillates from profoundly sad to surrealistically absurd. The pain at the passing of a companion animal is acute, and people frequently find it more painful than the passing of a person. But our conventions socially don’t provide a set of mourning rituals for an animal’s death, and those who lose pets often don’t feel it is acceptable to publicly grieve an animal the way they would a human loved one, and all of this leaves people on their own to try to find closure and ways to direct their grief. I recently began volunteering for a website that serves as a kind of online pet cemetery, I write letters of condolence to people who create memorials for their recently deceased animals–the idea is that getting letters from strangers who sympathize with their grief is not only comforting, but a way to let them know they are not alone in what they feel, and it’s OK to feel this intense pain at the loss of a pet. So every morning I wake up and there are maybe a dozen new distraught pet owners I have to write to, and I read these memorials and look at these online tombstones they have created, and I swear it just kills me, the emotion is so intense and so raw that it often brings me nearly to tears. The part that gets really weird though is when people start theorizing on the afterlives of pets, and trying to find complex theological arguments by which they can meet them in Heaven. I don’t know in the end what will come of this idea to do a pet cemetery book, and since I have another book already in the can for next year, this would be down the line at least a couple years. I am accumulating a massive amount of material, but the biggest problem thus far in envisioning it as a book is figuring out how to format it in book form–I still haven’t come up with a way that to me is totally amenable to the material.

AA: The pet cemetery project sounds brilliant! It’s nice to know that we have so much to look forward to from your work. Although honestly, all I want to do now is go and pet my bunnies. But before I do, in all of the interviews you’ve ever taken part in, is there something that you’ve always hoped someone would ask you?

PK: Definitely go pet your bunnies. One thing all this pet cemetery research has done is make me extremely close to my cats. What would I like someone to ask me about . . . well, I guess the thing I really like talking about that I don’t get enough of a chance to is some of the amazing correspondences I have been involved in because of all this research. For some reason, there are people out there who think that because I have written books about dead things, I can answer all these bizarre questions for them. I had a woman who was writing to me because she needed help with necromancy, in order to control the ghost of Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osborne’s old guitar player), with whom she was involved in a sexual relationship. I had another lady who believed her frying pan was haunted by the ghost of her cat. Things like this. I had another guy who wanted me to help him find a way to reanimate his dead dog. That kind of stuff makes my world go round.

AA: And now the regret that comes from not asking that question first. But alas, we haven’t the time. I suppose I’ll have to leave it for someone else. Paul, thank you so much for taking part in this interview for Deathsplanation, it has certainly been an education!

Paul’s photographs will be exhibited as a part of the Encountering Corpses event held by Manchester Metropolitan University, which runs from March 28th – April 10th. Paul also has two upcoming talks in the UK: March 24th with Historic Punch on Sicilian Sex Ghosts; and April 12th with Death Salon on Bolivian Skull Rituals. Further information on his books, photography, and talks can be found at his own website Empire de la Mort.  If you’re interested in another recent interview with Paul, which focuses more on his work and the processes behind it, then I highly recommend you visit These Bones of Mine.

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13 responses to “Hyenas and Handcuffs: an interview with Paul Koudounaris

  1. Pingback: Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens | These Bones Of Mine·

  2. Cool how different cultures honor the remains of their departed in different ways. My dog passed recently at 13. I’d been praying for God to take her peacefully and painlessly, and He did, thirty minutes before her sleep appointment. We buried her in the woods where she loved chasing squirrels and rabbits around. Our earthly bodies may wear out and fall apart but God made them and they still deserve respect, that’s for sure.

  3. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you need to publish more about this topic, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people don’t discuss such issues. To the next! Kind regards!!

  4. Thank you for this blog. As an RN, I’ve dealt with death, a lot. And today, I have far too many friends who may be facing an early death due to cancer. And as a baby boomer, death will be among us faster than any of us want to imagine. The medical profession is happy to talk about life but most often does not help the patient embrace death. I’ll be back to read more. You can count on it!

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