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Empire of Death: Photos from Crypts, Catacombs, and Bone Churches

Empire of Death A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses
The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses
by Paul Koudounaris
225 pages
Thames & Hudson

For The Empire of Death Paul Koudounaris visited 18 countries to photograph morbid works of art created from human bones from the 16th-19th centuries, including the Paris catacombs, Capuchin crypts in Italy, Sedlec Ossuary, and many more.

From the book’s description:

From bone fetishism in the ancient world to painted skulls in Austria and Bavaria: an unusual and compelling work of cultural history.

It is sometimes said that death is the last taboo, but it was not always so. For centuries, religious establishments constructed decorated ossuaries and charnel houses that stand as masterpieces of art created from human bone. These unique structures have been pushed into the footnotes of history; they were part of a dialogue with death that is now silent.

The sites in this specially photographed and brilliantly original study range from the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Palermo, where the living would visit mummified or skeletal remains and lovingly dress them; to the Paris catacombs; to fantastic bone-encrusted creations in Austria, Cambodia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Italy, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

Paul Koudounaris photographed more than seventy sites for this book. He analyzes the role of these remarkable memorials within the cultures that created them, as well as the mythology and folklore that developed around them, and skillfully traces a remarkable human endeavor. 290 photographs, 260 in color

Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
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Also by Paul Koudounaris:

MORE: Cult of Weird Recommended Reading

Cult of Weird 2015 Fall Reading List

Peculiar children, cannibalism, and the glorious misadventures of a dead man’s head top the list of macabre history and strange fiction on this year’s fall reading list.
Cult of Weird fall reading list

If you’re looking for the perfect weird book to curl with this fall, here is a collection of macabre history and strange fiction recommended by the Cult of Weird community. *Cult of Weird is not responsible for paper cuts, nightmares, existential breakdowns or sudden metamorphosis from your larval stage.

Last year: Fall Reading List 2014

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
Library of Souls is the third installment of the best selling Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
BUY IT HERE

Bad Days in History by Michael Farquhar

Bad Days in History by Michael Farquhar
If you feel like you’re having a bad day, this book details something horrible that’s happened in history for every day of the year. Your lousy day at work has nothing on the great molasses flood of 1919.
BUY IT HERE

Lady ParaNorma by Vincent Marcone

The Lady ParaNorma by Vincent Marcone
If your familiar with the work of Vincent Marcone and his design studio My Pet Skeleton, you won’t want to miss his first lavishly illustrated book about a haunted woman who finds happiness in an unlikely place.
BUY IT HERE

Monster Hunters by Tea Krulos

Monster Hunters by Tea Krulos
What’s it like to be a paranormal investigator? Tag along with Tea Krulos as he hunts for ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and other legends with those who have dedicated their lives to finding the answers.
BUY IT HERE

Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudounaris

Memento Mori by Paul Koudounaris
Explore the strange ways that cultures around the world celebrate and remember their dead, from extravagant bone-filled catacombs to vibrant festivals where the remains of their ancestors are the guests of honor.
BUY IT HERE

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Spook by Mary Roach
I haven’t had the opportunity to read anything by Mary Roach yet, but there’s no denying that she is a Cult of Weird favorite. Her name pops up again and again every time I’m looking for book recommendations. Last year’s list featured her book Stiff about cadavers, so this time we’ll take the next step…into the afterlife.
BUY IT HERE

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski
I have no idea what House of Leaves is about, but after several recommendations and a compelling description, it seems like this list would be incomplete without it.
BUY IT HERE

Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira Grant
Designer tapeworms…what could possibly go wrong?
BUY IT HERE

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson
Because a fall reading list isn’t complete without some historical cosmic horror. This is a classic work of weird fiction from 1908 that went on to influence H.P. Lovecraft.
BUY IT HERE

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir by Marc Hartzman

The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell by Marc Hartzman
Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, but that was not the end of his story. He was later exhumed, hanged, beheaded, impaled, bought and sold until his final burial in 1960. This memoir recounts the many misadventures of Oliver Cromwell’s head through 300 years of bizarre history.
BUY IT HERE

Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale the novel
A shadowy government agency wants me to tell you that this book from the creators of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast should not be read, as it may cause a wormhole to open in your nostril…a serious threat to national security to be sure. Don’t read it. Just don’t. Okay, maybe just a little. But stop when the tingling starts.
BUY IT HERE

Mothman’s Curse by Christine Hayes

Mothman's Curse by Christine Hayes
What are the origins of the mothman? Does he cause death wherever he goes, or is he trying to help? Mothman’s Curse explores these questions through the story of three kids who find themselves hopelessly entangled in the creatures mysteries through a terrible disaster they hope they can prevent.
BUY IT HERE

Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal

Man-Eater by Harold Schechter
True crime author Harold Schechter tackles the sordid tale of one of America’s first cannibals. Was Alfred Packer a cold-blooded killer, or did he eat his travel companions in a last ditch effort to survive after they had already killed each other?
BUY IT HERE

Did you read something recently that belongs on this list?
Tell us about it in the comments below!

Memento Mori: Paul Koudounaris Photographs the World of the Dead

Dr. Paul Koudounaris photographed the often vibrant realm where the distinction between the living and dead ceases to exist for his new book Memento Mori.
A skull wearing sunglasses from Memento Mori by Paul Koudounaris
Photo from the La Paz skull festival in Bolivia by Paul Koudounaris

Dr. Paul Koudounaris, author of the macabre and fascinating The Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies, is known for his beautiful photos of the dead.

His new book is no exception, as it explores the relationship between the living and the dead in cultures where there is very little distinction between the two.

Through photos taken at more than 250 sites in thirty countries over a decade, Paul Koudounaris has captured death around the world. From Bolivia’s “festival of the little pug-nosed ones,” where skulls are festooned with flowers and given cigarettes to smoke and beanie hats to protect them from the weather to Indonesian families who dress mummies and include them in their household routines; from naturally preserved Buddhist monks and memorials to genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia to the dramatic climax of Europe’s great ossuaries, Memento Mori defies taboo to demonstrate how the dead continue to be present in the lives of people everywhere.

kolin 18th century charnel house in the Czech Republic from the book Memento Mori
The Kolin charnel house in the Czech Republic. Photo by Paul Koudounaris.

Memento Mori book by Dr. Paul KoudounarisMemento Mori: The Dead Among Us

Death is universal, but the human response to death varies widely. In Western society, death is usually medicalized and taboo, and kept apart from the world of the living, while in much of the rest of the world, and for much of human history, death has commonly been far more integrated into peoples’ daily existence, and human remains are as much a reminder of life, memento vitae, as of death, memento mori.

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Most Popular Weird Books of 2014

Taxidermy, cryptids, crematoriums and grotesque medical history: The Cult of Weird community rounds up the best weird books of 2014.
Best weird books of the year

This year I learned that the Cult of Weird community loves a good, macabre book as much as I do, which helped tremendously when it came time to gather suggestions for the Fall reading list.

This year Cult contributor J. Nathan Couch’s search for the elusive Goatman hit the shelves, along with mortician Caitlin Doughty’s tales from the crematory and Robert Marbury’s quintessential guide to taxidermy art.

Here are the top 10 books most sought after by the Cult in 2014:

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtySmoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

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Taxidermy Art: A Rogue's Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It YourselfTaxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself

In this collection of taxidermy art, you’ll find a winged monkey with a fez and a martini glass, a jewel-encrusted piglet, a bionic fawn, and a polar bear balancing on a floating refrigerator. Author Robert Marbury makes for a friendly (and often funny) guide, addressing the three big questions people have about taxidermy art: What is it all about? Can I see some examples? and How can I make my own? He takes readers through a brief history of taxidermy (and what sets artistic taxidermy apart) and presents stunning pieces from the most influential artists in the field. Rounding out the book are illustrated how-to lessons to get readers started on their own work, with sources for taxidermy materials and resources for the budding taxidermist.

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Mutter Museum Historic Medical PhotographsMutter Museum Historic Medical Photographs

The first book on the Mutter Museum contains artful images of the museum’s fascinating exhibits shot by contemporary fine art photographers. Here, the focus is on the museum’s archive of rare historic photographs, most of which have never been seen by the public. Featured are poignant, aesthetically accomplished works ranging from Civil War photographs showing injury and recovery, to the ravages of diseases not yet conquered in the 19th century, to pathological anomalies, to psychological disorders. Many were taken by talented photographers between the 1860s and the 1940s as records for physicians to share among colleagues and to track patients’ conditions, and demonstrate various techniques used in medical photography including the daguerreotype, micrography, X ray, and traditional portrait-style photography. As visual documents of what humans endured in the face of limited medical knowledge, these extraordinary and haunting photographs demonstrate how far medicine has advanced.

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Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the CatacombsHeavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies.

In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as “the catacomb saints,” were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death.

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Rest in Pieces by Bess LovejoyRest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

In the long run, we’re all dead. But for some of the most influential figures in history, death marked the start of a new adventure. The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated, and even filed away in a lawyer’s office. Their fingers, teeth, toes, arms, legs, skulls, hearts, lungs, and nether regions have embarked on voyages that crisscross the globe and stretch the imagination. Counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s corpse. Einstein’s brain went on a cross-country road trip. And after Lord Horatio Nelson perished at Trafalgar, his sailors submerged him in brandy—which they drank. From Mozart to Hitler, Rest in Pieces connects the lives of the famous dead to the hilarious and horrifying adventures of their corpses, and traces the evolution of cultural attitudes toward death.

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Explore the legends and sightings of Goatman in the new book by J. Nathan CouchGoatman: Flesh or Folklore?

Legend says that all across America, a monster lives in the darkness. It lurks on the boundaries of suburbia mere miles from our homes. Huge, foul-smelling, and murderous, it has many regional names but most people refer to the creature by a simple, straightforward name – Goatman. Join author J. Nathan Couch as he explores the Goatman legends and sightings in search of the bizarre creature’s origins.

Named Best Weird Cryptid Book of 2014 by International Cryptozoology Museum founder Loren Coleman!

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Cabinets of WonderCabinets of Wonder

Skulls, butterflies, hunting trophies, ancient Egyptian artifacts, the alleged skeletons of mythological creatures, and many other mysterious oddities fill cabinets of wonder. A centuries-old tradition developed in Europe during the Renaissance, cabinets of wonder (also known as curiosity cabinets) are once again in fashion. Shops, restaurants, and private residences echo these cabinets in their interior design, by making use of the eclectic vintage objects commonly featured in such collections. Cabinets of Wonder showcases exceptional collections in homes and museums, with more than 180 photographs, while also explaining the history behind the tradition, the best-known collections, and the types of objects typically displayed. Offering both a historical overview and a look into contemporary interior design, this extravagantly illustrated book celebrates the wonderfully odd world of cabinets of wonder.

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Stop Worrying There Probably is an AfterlifeStop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife

Did Steve Jobs have a vision of the afterlife on his death-bed? Does quantum physics suggest that our mind might survive the physical death of our body? How do some near-death experiencers ‘see’ outside of their bodies at a time when they are supposed to be dead? In ‘Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife’, author Greg Taylor covers all these questions and more. From Victorian seance rooms through to modern scientific laboratories, Taylor surveys the fascinating history of research into the survival of human consciousness, and returns with a stunning conclusion: that maybe we should stop worrying so much about death, because there probably is an afterlife.

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Walter Potter's Curious World of TaxidermyWalter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

Welcome to Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s fantasy world of rabbit schoolchildren, cigar-smoking squirrels and exemplary feline etiquette in Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. Walter Potter (1835–1918), a British country taxidermist of no great expertise, built anthropomorphic taxidermy tableaux that became famous icons of Victorian whimsy, including his masterpiece The Death & Burial of Cock Robin. His tiny museum in Bramber, Sussex, was crammed full of multi-legged kittens, two-headed lambs, and a bewildering assortment of curios. Potter’s inspired and beguiling tableaux found many fans in the contemporary art world: it was reported that a £1M bid by Damien Hirst to keep the collection intact was refused when the museum finally closed. Here, perhaps for the last time, many important pieces from the collection are showcased and celebrated with new photographs of Potter’s best-loved works. Darkly witty and affecting, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy makes a charming, whimsical (and yes, slightly morbid) gift.

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Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930

From the advent of photography in the 19th and into the 20th century, medical students, often in secrecy, took photographs of themselves with the cadavers that they dissected: their first patients. Featuring 138 of these historic photographs and illuminating essays by two experts on the subject, Dissection reveals a startling piece of American history. Sherwin Nuland, MD, said this is “a truly unique and important book [that] documents a period in medical education in a way that is matched by no other existing contribution.” And Mary Roach said Dissection “is the most extraordinary book I have ever seen–the perfect coffee table book for all the households where I’d most like to be invited for coffee.”

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What books are you looking forward to reading in 2015?

Death: 10 Macabre and Fascinating Books

I embarked on a mission to create a simple list of “weird” books that would look great (and possibly frighten guests) on your coffee table. Instead I accidentally assembled a rather profound exploration of humanity’s most primal anxiety: death.

As far as anyone can tell, no one has ever actually lived forever, be it physically or spiritually. However, that does not end our tireless efforts to keep death at bay, or the eternal struggle to accept our seemingly inescapable fates.

These books delve into the science of immortality and the veneration of death, a macabre look at the dark side that exists in the desperate pursuit of life.

Related

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris
Author Paul Koudounaris uncovers the bizarre history of Europe’s exquisitely jeweled catacomb saints, remains thought to be of early Christian martyrs unearthed in the labyrinthine tombs discovered beneath Rome in 1578. After the Protestant Reformation lead to the destruction of holy relics, the bones were reassembled, decorated lavishly and put on display.

Get Heavenly Bodies right here.

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy

Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy
Walter Potter was a Victorian taxidermist who crafted whimsical scenes with kittens, birds and other critters from the English countryside. For years his collection drew visitors from all over the world, until it was auctioned in 2003 and scattered. This book may be the only way the collection will ever be seen together again.

Get Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy right here.

Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife

Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife by Greg Taylor of The Daily Grail
I have long been a follower of Greg Taylor’s work over at The Daily Grail. In his new book, he explores the history of research into the survival of human consciousness, from the beliefs of Victorian spiritualists to cutting-edge scientific studies.

Stop worrying now by grabbing your copy of the book right here.

Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses book by Bess Lovejoy
Sometimes death is only the beginning. Author Bess Lovejoy crafted a fascinating book tracing the true adventures of historical celebrities, or at least pieces of them, after they met their various fates.

Get Rest in Pieces right here.

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life Adventures in Taxidermy book by Melissa Milgrom
Melissa Milgrom digs into the often misunderstood world of taxidermy, going into the workshops where the art is made, where museum dioramas come to blow the dust off the old stigmas.

Get Still Life right here.

Mütter Museum Historic Medical Photographs

Mutter Museum Historical Medical Photographs book
Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum is home to a macabre collection of human oddities and medical anomalies. This book showcases photos from the collection depicting Civil War medicine, ravaging diseases, deformities and psychological disorders.

Get your copy right here.

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930
This book is a window into early American medicine, documenting the rite of cadaver dissection for medical students. These photos pierce the veil, allowing a rare glimpse into the highly exclusive inner sanctum where men cut into dead bodies on bloody tables to learn how to heal the living.

Start dissecting right here.

The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever

The Book of Immortality by Adam Leith Gollner
I haven’t had the opportunity to read this yet, but an excerpt about author Adam Leith Gollner’s journey to David Copperfield’s private island, where the magician claims to have discovered a fountain of youth, definitely caught my attention.

Discover the secrets of immortality right here.

Cabinets of Curiosities

Cabinets of Curiosities book
Cabinets of curiosities began as rooms of wonder or wunderkammer, amazing collections of weird and rare natural history relics, religious artifacts and works of art assembled by intellectuals and royalty.

Get Cabinets of Curiosities right here.

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses

Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris
The first offering from Paul Koudounaris, the photos in this book explore the religious sanctuaries where death was put on display – enormous ossuaries decorated with human bones across the globe.

Get Empire of Death here.