I love Los Angeles. I love everything about living here… except for the fact that we’re a little light on the relics. Here’s the story of St. Vibiana, LA’s only full-body relic, straight from the Roman catacombs.
She had a much better look in 1951 if you ask me. It’s a shame they eschewed the humanizing wax effigy for the new, minimalist (and matchy-matchy) tomb.
(Top photo from USC Libraries at the old St. Vibiana Cathedral, bottom photo by me at the new Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral.)
I’m very excited to announce a talk I’ll be giving as part of Death Salon San Francisco October 11th! Come see The Public Corpse: Exploring Death Rituals and the Spaces Dedicated to Them in Rome. I’ll be taking attendees on a journey through crypts, putridarium, purgatorial societies and the shrines of the incorrupt where we’ll see how this seemingly macabre culture actually celebrates life.
You can get tickets here and check out the rest of the speaker lineup. There are going to be some amazing presenters like Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Santa Muerte expert, Caitlin Doughty of Ask a Mortician, and Dr. Paul Koudounaris, bon vivant and author of Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death.
I can’t wait. Hope to see some of you there!
The photo is the crypt at Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (currently closed for renovation) by me.
The skeletons are back! Now they’re on Slate, where they can remind even more people what lies ahead for all of us.
Check them out here.
New Feature: The Bookshelf
Back when I started this blog and had exactly 0 readers (and basically assumed it would stay that way forever) I just wrote journal entries. I posted camera-phone pictures I took while traveling and wrote captions that were just my impressions or interesting tidbits I found on the internet or something I read on a plaque somewhere. But as it turns out, other people are interested in dusty old church corners so I need to be a little more rigorous since it’s not just for me.
But I’m no academic. I have an MFA in stage design which hardly qualifies me to talk about this stuff with any real authority. I’m more of a travel writer who occasionally likes to ruminate on history and how these pieces of the past fit into life today. So you should probably know where I’m getting my information that doesn’t come directly from my experiences. Lately I’ve started listing the more obscure papers and articles I read at the bottom of the entry. But I also want to supplement my article-specific sources with an ongoing list of books that I’ve read and tend to pull off the shelf a lot.
That’s where the bookshelf comes in. If you’d like to learn more about saints and relics, I highly recommend diving into any of the titles listed. I’ll keep the photos, first-hand accounts and folklore coming.
Caitlin the mortician and I are talkin’ transi over at The Order of the Good Death. (Incidentally Talkin’ Transi is also the name of our pretend cable access show.) Transi tombs are these really great medieval funerary monuments that actually show the deceased in a state of decay. And as it turns out, Caitlin isn’t just a licensed mortician, she’s also a medieval scholar. (Don’t believe me? Pick up Morbid Anatomy’s Anthology and read her serious academic essay on demon babies.)
Caitlin posted the first photo, an early transi tomb from Avignon, as part of her #MementoMoriMonday series. It instantly reminded me of my favorite example of the genre, which you can see in the second photo. (From Wikimedia by Pline) It’s at St. Gervais et St. Protais in Gisor, France, a short train ride away from Paris.
After reading more about these two fascinating examples I found out that the guy who was buried beneath Caitlin’s tomb, Cardinal Lagrange, was quite a character. He picked a fight with the pope after he ignored a Papal Bull against dismembering corpses. Who’s corpse did he dismember, you ask? HIS OWN. He specified in his will that he wanted his bones boiled and buried in Amiens and a separate flesh burial in Avignon.
I don’t know if he succeeded with that request, but thanks to his tomb we know what he would have looked like rotting, if he rotted after all.
Today Me, Tomorrow You
Let me take you on a tour of all my favorite Baroque tombs in Rome. Read the full article and see even more photos here.
All photos by me.
I’m Miss World
Let me introduce you to Ms. World and The Prince of Darkness, two German allegorical figures who like to skulk around cathedrals. They’re definitely hiding something behind their backs. (Yep, it’s snakes!)
Now that I’m done writing this piece, hopefully I can get that Hole song out of my head.
Read the whole story over at Atlas Obscura.
Just in time for Bastille Day, here’s my latest piece on a crypt full of blood and bones in Paris. Special thanks to Marie-Christine Pénin who created the wonderful Tombes et Sepultures website. She graciously allowed me to use her photos (including the one above). The crypt is only open for one tour a week and when I visited I somehow wound up on a tour for nuns. (I only stuck out a little bit…) I didn’t feel right taking pictures even though they were allowed so I don’t have my own to share this time.
Wanna know who these ladies are? Or maybe what’s up with that pile of bodies and torture devices in the background?
Follow me on Facebook and I’ll tell you. Plus you’ll get a random assortment of other pictures, thoughts, and news items.
This post might activate your sweet tooth or put you off dessert forever. It really depends on how you feel about eating the tears, breasts, bones and eyes of the saints (metaphorically of course).
These are my top ten favorite desserts created specifically for saints’ feast days. Check them all out here.
If you like it, you should also check out my friend (and fellow Death Salon board member’s) blog Nourishing Death. She looks at relationship between food, death rituals and culture. It’s really fascinating.
Everybody loves the Sedlec Ossuary (heck, my avatar is the sidewalk there) but maybe it’s time to switch it up. Let’s go to Brno, your new deathstination in the Czech Republic!
They have this sweet skeleton door, a crypt full of mummified monks, and the second largest ossuary in Europe outside of the Paris catacombs. Read my article on it over at Atlas Obscura.
The afterlife has been one long journey for Saint Vibiana
An All the Saints You Should Know shout out from Los Angeles Magazine! How cool is that? And some nice info in St. Vibiana to boot!
You know what I love about Rome? No matter how much you think you know, no matter how much you research, there’s always something else to see at the shrines. So there’s always another reason to go back.
But you have to ask. Knowing exactly what you want to see is the key to finding the most amazing things (as is chatting up a nice sacristan or custodian with a set of keys). For example, I took the top two photos of St. Camillus de Lellis at Santa Maria Maddalena. I even talked to a sacristan there and viewed St. Camillus’ heart and rooms at the monastery next door.
But clearly I didn’t ask all the right questions (some sacristans are more forthcoming than others). I thought the relics were embedded in the wax figure but thanks to The Camillians Facebook page, I found out I was totally wrong. Had I only asked I could have seen his skeleton, stored in a compartment under his effigy. The bottom photo shows what I missed (courtesy of The Camillians on Facebook).
Filing away for next time…
Let’s talk about incorrupt corpses. They always look a little… off… right?
I know. So I wrote a piece about them. Get the real deal on saints that won’t rot away over at The Order of the Good Death.
One of the best things that’s happened to me within the past year is getting the opportunity to meet people who talk about, write about or make things about death. On the whole, they’re some of the nicest and most delightfully strange people I’ve ever met. They’ve pushed me to keep writing. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with the folks at Atlas Obscura, Morbid Anatomy, and Death Salon. Personally I’ve found that dealing with death can really add to one’s enjoyment of life.
That’s why I’m so pleased to say that I’m actively collaborating with Caitlin Doughty (of Ask a Mortician fame) as a member of The Order of the Good Death. Caitlin is an inspiration, particularly in terms of getting real about death. Her experience caring for the dead and grieving alike has inspired me to look at the larger cultural and psychological implications of relics, incorrupt bodies and saints. She’s also way funnier than your average mortician. She doesn’t even mind if I use phrases like “corpse toilets" on her blog.
So look for more Order of the Good Death cross-posts in the future and check out some of the other members’ work. It’s a group I’m honored to be a part of. (Plus we sound like a cool purgatorial society and you know how much I love those.)
(Photo of Cardinal Josepho Renato’s tomb in Sant’Agostino by me.)