The Vulnerable Body

One of the most amazing places we visited during our summer journeying was the bone chapel in Hallstatt, Austria.  The link to the article provides some more information, but essentially in this beautiful little village tucked between mountain and lake, bones from the cemetery used to be removed to make room for the newly dead.  The skulls were bleached in the sun and then lovingly hand-painted by family members with names, dates, and decorations.  I had read about this place before our trip but standing in the room with 600 skulls was an transcendent experience.  I was brushing against my own mortality, confronted with my own vulnerable body made up of bone and fragile tissue, and at the same time witnessing the beauty of what remains. 

When I was young I was afraid of dead bodies, they often appeared in my dreams in frightening ways.  When my father died it was quite sudden and he was whisked off to the city morgue.  When my husband and I arrived back in New York City to take care of his things and plan his memorial service my mother (who had separated from him years before) told me someone had to go identify his body.  The thought filled me with dread and my dear, sweet husband offered to fulfill the task.  He was taken into a back room as I waited in the cold marble lobby.  When he came back out I asked, “how did he look?”  “Tired, very tired,” he replied.  There is a part of me that regrets never having seen his body for at least some closure.  Receiving the ashes is so disconnected from the embodied reality of a person. 

When my mother died, I was with her those last five days or her life and even there at the very last moment of breath.  It was excruciating and so deeply holy.  My most visceral memory is massaging her limbs with hospital lotion as she lay unconscious and we waited for her to die.  I was so intimate with death in that room, blessing me and wounding me in the same thrust.  I lost my fear of death and bodies no longer living. When my beloved dog Duke died I was able to hold him as well in those final moments of breathing.

So many of the churches we visited in Europe had skulls carved from marble scattered through the building.  I appreciated those reminders of mortality, the skulls dwelling in the sacred space alongside winged angels.  I especially loved the skull we found with the Bishop’s miter, a reminder that no one is spared death.  In many ways I feel the church has been abusive to people in holding out a vision of a terrible, fiery hell awaiting those who were not devoted. Fear has never seemed to me to be a very effective motivator in the long run.  But still, I loved those statues of skulls, just as I loved the real skulls sitting in the bone chapel in a tiny Austrian village.

The other day Tess at Anchors and Masts emailed me a link to an artist she thought I might be intrigued by, and intrigued I was indeed.  Helen Nottage is a young ceramicist who creates sculptures of the human form in varying stages of decay.  At an earlier time in my life I would have been slightly horrified, but now I look on her images in wonder finding beauty in her careful attention to the details of the body decaying.  I am also uncomfortable, knowing this will be me, and yet confronting my own death does not fill me with fear. It makes me cleave to my life, plunging me in the gift of this moment.

We are always in a process of decay, something our culture urges us to resist at every possible turn.  Just like the waning of the moon, the season of autumn, and the turning of day into night, we are invited to embrace the beauty of our entire human reality, the dying and the living, the dark and light, the falling apart and becoming whole again.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

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