by Marc Escanuelas
“Memento mori” translates to “remember death”. In ages past, skulls and skeletons found their way into art that was meant to remind the living that life was finite and to make the most of the time they’re given. Far from being macabre, it was a stark reminder to live life to its fullest because one never knows when the curtain will fall and darkness will descend. Although some may shrink away from such iconography, I think it’s a reminder that many of us need. I know not everyone can drop everything and travel the world but we can all try and find balance in our own way. No matter what you do, eventually the days run out.
I’m fascinated by the dead. I seek out cemeteries, ossuaries and museums of medical oddities in the same way that other travelers seek out historic churches and famous paintings. You can blame my mother, whose fascination with death and all things morbid rubbed off on me. She claimed that her own fear of death motivated her to seek out things like crime scene photos and biographies of serial killers. She was also famous for her “Death Tour” on which she’d take wide-eyed friends and relatives to famous murder sites around Los Angeles such as the houses where Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Tate, and Nicole Brown Simpson met their respective ends. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend the Museum of Death in Hollywood. Of the many interesting things to see within its walls, I think the most alarming is a series of photos taken by a woman who murdered her husband with the help of the man she was cheating on him with. They took photos of the entire, gruesome process. A friend of theirs at the photo processing shop had agreed to develop them secretly but another employee spotted the photos and phoned police. What disturbed me most was not the act itself (monstrous as it was) but that three individuals were willing to take part in it. More specifically, two decided to murder and the third decided he had no issue with developing the photos. It made me wonder how many more people must get away with a crime like this now that digital photography has eliminated the middle man. Shudder.
On this trip so far I’ve been to the Paris Catacombs, the Musée Dupuytren (also in Paris), the Naples Catacombs and the Sedlec Ossuary outside Prague (all of which are included in the slideshow above). Next on my list is the Capela dos Ossos in Evora, Portugal.
On previous trips I visited Pere Lachaise in Paris, the Medical Museum at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Igreja de Sao Francisco in Porto, and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek in Cambodia. The Killing Fields (for those unaware) were an area where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered thousands of people and buried them in mass graves. The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa filled with the skulls of victims. Even in the glare of the Cambodian sun a skull is a dark, haunted thing. As you move around the stupa, your eyes align with the portals where eyes once were, seeing into the hollow where a soul once resided. I found myself making eye contact with as many skulls as possible and wondering what their lives were like before they were murdered. It’s one thing to read about the deaths of a huge number of people and quite another to stand in front of a row of skulls and watch a number go from abstract to concrete before your eyes.
Both the Musée Dupuytren and Siriraj Hospital Medical Museum possess large collections of babies in jars that typically have some form of deformity such as harlequin babies. Admittedly, this type of museum isn’t for everyone and perhaps seeing babies in jars is upsetting to most. I find it fascinating, however. If anything, it makes me grateful to be alive and healthy knowing that there are so many things that can go wrong. I also think that everyone deserves a witness and deserves to have their story told.