I don’t know what was the original motivation behind the “bone church” in Sedlec in Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. Its present use of human bones and skulls for extensive ornamentation of a church is the product of the Czech wood-carver František Rint, who even used human bones to sign his work in 1870 on one of the church walls. As many as 40,000 of the former inhabitants of its graveyard were put to good use here, and some of the “artwork” include all the bones of the human body. Read more…
The loss of a dear one can be a traumatic experience. At other times, it can cause a milder reaction – some sadness, nostalgia, fond memories, and reflection on life and death.
We all carry an image of our friends in our minds. When we have regular contact with those friends, the image constantly grows and changes over time as a result of our interactions with him or her. When the friend is no more, what happens to this image? Perhaps it gradually sinks into the unconscious, being brought to the surface only when certain occasions, places, or persons remind us of it.
Some forms of meditation are technical, such as meditation on the breath, body sensations or sound. Others are topical, centring on life themes, devotion, scriptural content or ideas. One meditative topic that has been commonly used both in the East and West is death.
The Greeks exhorted us to remember death, the Buddhists went to charnel grounds to see dead bodies rot, and the Daoists compared death to the natural changes of all things. I recently visited the basement of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, where the monks used the bones and skulls of dead monks as wall decorations. In the innermost room there was an inscription, speaking to us who are still alive: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.” In order to avoid any vain hopes of posthumous glory as a venerated skeleton, the different bones of one and the same person were scattered all over. Over the centuries, four thousand monks ended up in the “gallery”.
Even in forms of meditation that do not focus on death as such, the idea of letting go and of not clinging to your individual existence is often central. A free mental attitude is a question of not being too attached to the things you have and are, but to be able to “die” from them – even while you’re still alive.
I’m not a poet, and hardly a translator, but would like to share the poem “Utsettelse?” (Postponement?) by the now aging and sick Norwegian poet Stein Mehren:
As life is being taken from us, we
want it all the more, with prayers
resembling less our raptures
than they resemble our moans of pain
It’s like being drawn
screaming and backwards into
the realm of death, conscious of
not yet having quite finished being born