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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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9 Responses

  1. Oh Christine…such a deeply felt and wonder post…I was reminded of the story of the woman who loses her son and was deeply grieved, so goes to the holy man to ask him to bring her son back to life. He tells her he will do this, but first she must bring mustard seeds back from the household that has not seen death. Of course doing this, she meets many wonderful people, and by sharing their stories of loss, she is moved with compassion and realizes how we are all touched by death, and through our suffering, we are united.

    I had the radio on in the car yesterday and the song, “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls came on (it was in the movie, “City of Angels”). I was singing along and surprised to start crying. The words so appropriate to what you were saying—we are all so connected.


    And I’d give up forever to touch you
    cause I know that you feel me somehow.
    You’re the closest to heaven that I’ve ever been
    and I don’t want to go home right now.

    And all I can taste is this moment
    and all I can breathe is your life
    cause sooner or later it’s over
    I just don’t want to miss you tonight

    And I don’t want the world to see me
    cause I don’t think that they’d understand
    when everything’s made to be broken
    I just want you to know who I am.

    Peace and blessings on this journey~thank you for being you….Kathy

  2. I have almost lost my husband many times in the last fifteen years to heart disease as he went through a major heart attack, many small attacks, stints, open heart surgery, the implant of an ICD, which a year later saved his life – and now facing the possibility of a heart transplant. I remember a two year period where I faced my husbands open heart surgery, then the loss of my beloved grandmother, my father, and my mother all to cancer in that short space of time.

    How I think of death stems from a story when I was very young:

    I was only maybe 5 when my grandfather died. I remember being at my Aunt Mattie’s house when a man in a dark suit, with a hat in his hands, came to door and spoke with Aunt Mattie. She turned from the door to scoop me into her arms and sit on the sofa beneath this large picture window. I remember her explaining how my grandfather had been called to heaven, how he loved me very much, always would, and he would continue look after me from there. I remember sitting on her lap and looking out at the blue sky studded with puffy white clouds through the window and thinking how beautiful it must be up there. And then thinking how much he could see from up there – and being soooo good for weeks afterward because after all my grandfather could see from heaven.

    But what has stayed with me is this peace that my loved ones have been called to a beautiful place and watch over me from heaven.

    It is a child’s belief. It has not developed much even into adulthood. The loss of a loved one hurts deeply, but there is also some comfort I find.

  3. Thanks for the very thoughtful comments and discussion here!

    Eden, I agree that some distinction might be helpful here, when I said we were always in a process of decay I meant that this was always happening simultaenously with the regeneration, but we focus so much on the life over death that we forget death is integral to the process. I think this is true both in spiritual and physical dimensions.

    lucy, thanks for sharing your reaction, I think you got at it precisely, we tend to think in our culture of decay and aging as “hopeless” and yet there is something beautiful there too.

    thanks Laure for sharing these thought-provoking words.

    Tess, just know that when I first saw a story about this place with the accompanying photo my heart leapt with delight. :-) What a beautiful image of your aunt and I appreciate the making the connection to autumn explicit, the season of letting go is for me the most beautiful.

  4. This is very beautiful. Unlike Lucy, my inner voice was not ‘yikes’ but more a musing as to the practicalities of how to decorate a skull. What that says about me I’m not sure! ;-)
    I will always remember my aunt during the last days of her long illness, when the beautiful bone structure of her face was almost all that was left. Always slim, she went through a stage of being gaunt and almost ugly, but at the end, all that melted away and the beauty of her bones remained.
    And how appropriate that you should post this at the beginning of September, as the year begins its slow descent to death again, ready for the reawakening of Spring.

  5. christine, this is a strong and honest post. upon reading your words, my mind quickly went here …

    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

    -2 Corinthians 4:16-18

    thank you for inviting us to look at death and to consider where we are once we do.


  6. and one more thing…i have to admit that when i popped open this entry and saw the skulls, my inner voice said, “yikes!” :-) i think that is part of my cultural indoctrination perhaps?

  7. responding to eden’s innuendo…i was glad to see her call out “we are always in a process of decay.” when i read those words i had a visceral reaction perhaps because i am becoming only too aware of that physical process and it is not always joyous :-) , however, i feel like it was more that those particular words hold a sense of hopelessness which i know is the opposite of what you are conveying in this overall post.

    i had my very first experience watching the breath leave a loved one this weekend. it was truly a beautiful and holy time…not something i feared at all other than the fear of my own pain and loss. the decay truly feels like it is a physical thing and that our spirits & essence live on in a ways we cannot even begin to imagine…”the falling apart and becoming whole again.” thank you for this! xoxoxoxoo

  8. Christine, this is very healing! When I was in spiritual direction, which I did for a number of years in a small group, my director, a Sister of Charity, often brought into the discussion stories of the suffering of people from around the world where she had visited, images of poverty and war, and many things difficult to look at, but which when addressed directly created a purgation of fears, and increased our capacity for compassion.

    One point I think needs flushing out a little, where you say, “We are always in a process of decay.” This is true externally, but internally, spiritually, there is a reverse ratio.