Of all the unusual topics I have studied and written about (alien cults, apocalyptic cults, my obvious obsession with the notions of “good” and “evil”, etc.) death, and discussions surrounding death, have brought out the most vehement responses.
Which is interesting in itself, as it is the one thing that every religion has a strong opinion about.
The Capuchin Monastery in Palermo, Sicily, houses approximately 2000 mummies. An interesting article written by National Geographic describes these bodies:
Their jaws hang open in silent yowls, rotting teeth grin with menace, eye sockets stare bleakly, shreds of hard skin cling to shrunken cheeks and arthritic knuckles. These people are mostly small, their arms crossed as they sag against the wire and nails that hold them upright, their heads lolling on shoulders, bodies slowly collapsing with the effort of imitating a past life.
Of note is the author’s comment on viewing the bodies, and pondering if it is “a religious experience or a cultural one”. Ah, well, they are not easily separated, and I doubt the necessity to do so. The journalist continues by stating, “but it is a tourist attraction.”
Well, yes. All religious sites are. In fact, the Cult of the Saints in the Middle Ages was the beginning of economic growth for tourism. One town buys the relics of a renowned saint and suddenly thousands of people make pilgrimages to the village, mostly in the belief that such relics had healing properties. It’s good business.
One thing I have learned, is that an “authentic” religious experience does not exist. Experience, by its very definition, is subjective to the person who experiences it. Once explained, an experience is no longer a feeling at a moment, but a definition to a third party, who in turn is incapable of sharing this feeling.
Fancy words to say that “culture” and “religion” are one in the same in my eyes. They are categories, necessary ones, for the academic to frame the ideas and practices they study, but are mutable, ephemeral, and subject to redesign for convenience, accuracy, and historical relevance.
We apply notions of legitimacy to ideas we are more accustomed to. In that way, popularity is often confused with authenticity.
But I’m getting sidetracked. The journalist describes some local reactions by clergy:
The nuns who are keepers of this strange congregation look on with pity and distaste. They tell me the bodies should be decently buried, allowed to return to dust. One says there’s nothing spiritual or uplifting to be learned from all this.
That is decidedly a modern sensibility, where “spirituality” and “religion” have moved to an inner state of being, a personal relationship with the divine, and Western notions of religious activity include meditation and yoga. We are not longer confined to dogmatic prescriptions on “religion”.
However, at the height of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of the population did not contemplate this modern notion of a personal relationship with a divine. Quite the opposite, as your actions, your “works” were what make you pious. You got rewarded in heaven, maybe, but no one knew for sure. God was kind of fickle like that. Grand theological ideas and philosophical pondering on the nature of god did not preoccupy ordinary citizens. That was reserved clergy.
To understand the obsession with mummification in Catholic history, I must briefly explain the division between body and mind, material and spiritual. Christianity inherits this bifurcation from Hellenistic philosophers. Monasteries were places of great spiritual study and physical ascetic practices (to varying degrees, depending on the factions of monks).
By denying physical pleasures, even causing pain and discomfort to the body, it was believed that you heightened your spirituality and became close with the divine.
Remember, that idea of a personal god that we understand today was not prevalent. Your only route to heaven was through Christ, and his only representative on earth was the pope. You, as a lowly layman, have no direct contact with god. This spiritual hierarchy is a reflection of the social structure at the time, demonstrated by feudalism. Your God is your King, you, as the peasantry, don’t have access, but your Lords do.
As such, it is not difficult to imagine that the clergies bodies, after death, were in fact considered to be a glimpse of the divine. Somehow more spiritual in themselves. Touching them, smelling them, holding them and seeing them allowed access to the divine.
This notion is still quite strong in Catholic parts of the world, such as Italy, the Philippines, and South America.
Take for instance, Padre Pio, an Italian priest. His body was put on display at the 40th anniversary of his death in April 2008. You can read all about him on my essay here.
His popularity demonstrates that our fascination with death and even the idea of these bodies as relics with healing powers is still very much active.
And totally fascinating.
P.S. I love National Geographic, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m perhaps more conscious that many of the authors are writing as journalists, not historians or academics.
Working for them is my dream job.