What Belongs to Us

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Kutná Hora, Czech Republic – September 2016

After the worms had done their work, the half-blind monk cleaned and polished the bones, and then stacked them into neat pyramids. Day after day. It was his life’s work. More than 40,000 bodies, mostly victims of the Black Death and wars, were laid to temporary rest in this small cemetery. Hallowed ground. It had been sprinkled, once upon a time, with earth brought back from Golgotha. The Place of the Skull. Centuries after the monk’s passing, a local woodcarver was commissioned by an aristocratic family to arrange the bones in a more aesthetically pleasing way. No one could have imagined the astonishing result.

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Ugh. Gruesome. Someone whispers. Kinda disrespectful, someone else agrees. But mostly, there is silence in this subterranean chapel.

It’s difficult to accept that this unique sequence of DNA does not belong to us. That one day worms will consume our flesh. That our graves could be desecrated. Our remains picked over like items at a garage sale. And now, in the frantic quest for immortality, some scientists envision cemeteries as fields of DNA ripe for harvest. For resurrection. So far, there is no evidence of the soul being encoded in the DNA. Behavior, yes. But that’s not the same thing. This doesn’t appear to be a concern for those scientists. It makes sense that those who don’t believe in a soul would feel no need to reawaken it. The husks of our Selves might once again wander the Earth one day.

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The cluster of tourists ascends and I find myself alone down here. A thought arises: do our spirits remain intact, or do they disperse and dissipate into an infinite sea of existence? Things are supposed to become clearer with age. Or maybe we become more aware of possibilities.

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Some live their whole lives indifferent to the flesh and blood that houses the spirit. Some loathe it and abuse it. Others subject it to a strict regimen, aiming for perfection. For forty-eight years, I have inhabited this vessel with every atom of my awareness. Sometimes paradise, sometimes prison. Every sensation is a shockwave. The maddening pain in this skull. The fire that smolders in this core. So often it feels as though it cannot be contained.

What a relief it must be to leave it all behind.

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Once upon a time, I worked on bodies, young and old. Super fit and gravely ill. I glided my hands over their skin, searching for blockages. The traumas that we carry with us. Physical, psychological. All of it is stored in the body. The names of the muscles and bones that I kneaded and soothed danced through my mind. Trapezius, Latissimus dorsi. Secret anguish loves to nestle itself in these two. Under my hands, it dissolved. This was before I realized that I feel what others feel and think it’s me who feels that way. Before I knew how to protect myself. The work bled me dry and left me hollow. These days, I touch almost no one.

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Did the artist of death contemplate the souls as he arranged the bones with such meticulous precision? What beauty did the eyes in this skull behold? For whom did the heart under this sternum flutter? Did he ever feel the urge to put them all back together again?

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63 thoughts on “What Belongs to Us

  1. Wonderfully, wonderfully unsettling – I am not sure I believe in ghosts but nothing would persuade me to spend a night in their company. A fine and fascinating post – reminds me of cold winter days spent in Le Macabre, Soho, listening to Lady D’Arbanville – what else 😉

  2. Hi Julie. I was ripe for this post. Just last night I finished reading a book by Paul Kalanithi titled, “When Breath Becomes Air.” You might enjoy this man’s philosophizing.

  3. Wow. I really need to update my passport. I have a fascination, and a genetic connection, to Prague. Love this one, Julie. As usual, you always take us there. I just posted about my obsession with libraries, and especially, the Clementinum.

    • I haven’t visited the Klementinium yet. I’ve heard the staff is rude, so It kind of kills my motivation to go there. But it sure looks beautiful. I really hope you can experience all of Prague’s wonders one day. This bone church is only an hour away from here, too.

        • Rudeness at tourist attractions, especially museums, is the norm in Europe. I don’t know why that is, but if you really want to see something, you need to accept it. Best thing to do is ignore it, but I’ve lost my temper more than once, most notably at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. It makes me laugh now, how I put that woman in her place. I bet she thinks twice before she tries to humiliate tourists now. 😀

  4. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, I see it as a beautiful honor to have bones laid out and placed on display. I know I’m weird. Also I don’t like people touching me and vice versa as I tend to absorb their energy or see things I’d rather not.

    • I think it’s beautiful, too, though not something I’d want hanging on my wall. 🙂 I got a peaceful feeling in that tiny chapel. It’s tough for those of us who soak up other people’s energy. I’ve learned how to shield myself as I’ve aged, but it still creeps in, even if I don’t touch people. That’s why I’m alone a lot.

  5. I’ve seen a large collection of bones, sorted and stacked at the Monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru, but nothing as elaborate as this. Both amazing and grotesque.

    • Hi Dave – there are lots of ossuaries all around Europe and the world but this one is really unique. It’s a huge tourist attraction, because it’s so close to Prague and easy to get to.

  6. I’ve seen photos of this place before, but I’ve always glanced, winced, then moved along. Now I’m thinking about souls and bodies and bones and posterity. I was trying to pack up my house and this was supposed to be a relaxing break, and now I’m all in a twist! So many good questions you raise – many that I ponder at times and can’t come to conclusions on – but the ones about the artist’s motivation and thoughts are the most compelling to me right now. What DID he think about as he arranged these bones? Shudder. Back to cleaning and packing.

    • Aw, sorry to have distracted you from more tranquil pursuits. People probably had a different idea of death back then, since it was so prevalent with all the wars and plagues, and people just didn’t live as long. The place itself is tiny, but there’s good energy there. I felt like the art was made with care and love. Happy packing. 😉

  7. Oooh, I’ve read before about this church before, but have never been. I’m terribly squeamish (unlike my partner and my mother – both medical professionals – why I am the opposite, I don’t know!), and am therefore usually a bit grossed out by this kind of thing, but honestly I find these photos kind of beautiful. Maybe because the blood and guts have gone away. 😉 In all serious, the dichotomy/connection between the soul and the body is something I think about rather often, especially given my physically-centered phobias. Have you read the His Dark Materials trilogy? I found a part of the third book to contain a rather touching spiritual, yet non-religious (as the series itself is rather anti-organized religion) explanation of the body vs. the soul. I come back to that a lot. Thanks for provoking further thoughts. 🙂

    • Hi Leah – I can’t deal with internal body stuff at all. Super phobic of needles, blood, and I really hate going to the doctor. But this place didn’t really bother me. As you said, all the guts are gone. 🙂 It really is beautiful, the way that they are arranged. I’ve never heard of that trilogy – there are so many things in American culture (films, books, famous people) that I’m ignorant of now, since I don’t pay attention anymore. I will look it up.

  8. Wonderful post as always.

    Who are the scientists you are referring to? My understanding is that the soul is immaterial, therefore science cannot tell us anything about it (even in principle).

    • Thanks , Grant. The main scientist I’m referring to is Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google. There is a documentary about him called Transcendant Man, in which he speaks about the Singularity – merging humans with computers. He also plans to bring his father back to life using things that his father left behind -writings, etc. There’s a scene in the movie when they drive by a cemetery and he says it’s good that all this DNA is “available”. Highly recommend watching it if you’re interested in knowing what some of these tech people are working on.

      • Thanks. I suspected it was Ray. AI gets a lot of press (movies, marketing, etc.) right now because there is a lot of $$$ to be made. I don’t think that makes him correct though. There is an excellent overview article called “Kurzweil’s Phantasms” which explains that both Aristotle and Aquinas disagree with Ray. Also, Kurt Goedel’s view is that his incompleteness theorem disproves the theory that a mind is a machine. Don’t tell Ray’s investors! 🙂

  9. Big questions, Julie, and I don’t feel any better equipped to answer them now than I ever did. I think more and understand less 🙂 I don’t think I could ever do the ‘healing hands’ stuff, and I have a distinct repugnance for what is left of us being pawed over. I watched a feature on ‘Invisible Cities’ – Venice this week, and it is totally fascinating what science can now accomplish. But scary to think about.

    • “I think more and understand less”. That’s a good way of putting it. It was so much easier when we were young and knew everything. 😉 I have come to accept that our DNA is no longer sacred, and that strangers can know so much from it. But at least they haven’t tapped into the memory or the soul. And I hope they never do. I think that would destroy all of my faith in everything. DNA can be picked up in so many places that we aren’t even conscious of. And if you ever do one of those home DNA tests to see your ethnicity, the company has the right to sell it to whomever they wish. I plan to be cremated and sprinkled in a hidden place. 😀

    • The atmosphere is peaceful, or at least it was on the warm, sunny day when I went. I suppose it could be considered an honor to have your bones chosen from so many.

  10. An interesting set of questions you have posed which I’m not sure I could answer. I don’t even really know what to think of this “artwork”. Interesting yet macabre and perhaps repulsive all at once.

    We give our DNA away quite freely whenever we touch something or shed a hair. It’s not sacred. I even read an article recently that indicated fingerprints have been copied, from photographs of people making peace signs with their fingers.

    • Our DNA is fair game for some people who feel entitled to it. It’s really too late to stop it. I once read that Madonna has a team clean up her DNA from every hotel she stays at. Not sure I believe it, but I can understand the concern.

  11. I’ve read about this before, I even believe it has been used in some stories and/or legends. Did you took the pictures? Great editing work, fits perfectly with the feeling…

  12. I loved this post, Julie! We have been given the gift of life, yet we understand that our time is but a breath. May be live every moment and celebrate with others who share our path. Thank you, dear friend.

  13. When I was 10, or 12 my mother took me to San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. It was the first time I saw an ossuary, albeit a far, far cry from Kutná Hora. What surprised me was to understand that those were the remnants of people that once were alive, had a soul, mind, thoughts.

    15 years later I saw my grandmother, and a year later my mother, dying. I understand the mechanics of how it happened, how biologically they ceased to function. But, as you eloquently said, what about their soul, their mind? Their DNA was still there. But what about the sparkle in their eye, the one that made them say “Farewell”, or “I’m sorry”? When did that cease to exist, and where did it go?

    I don’t know, but reading your post made me think about it; I suppose this – meditating about where we’re going – was one of the desired effects of the Kutná Hora architect (besides instilling disgust into visiting American tourists, ’cause only an American could say “kinda creepy”, isn’t it?)

    Beautiful and thoughtful writing, Julie. As ever, thanks.

    Fabrizio

    • I wondered if anyone would pick up on the subtle hint of that speaker’s nationality. 😉I couldn’t help but try to imagine such a place in America. People would be suing for emotional distress left and right.

      I’ve been wondering a lot lately about where we go when we leave these receptacles behind. I used to be so much surer when I was younger. As more of my loved ones (human and animal) move on, my own mortality looms before me, and it’s becoming difficult to ignore.

      • Well, who else would say “kinda” and “creepy” but the Americans?
        I understand why you think about it. I’m reading ” The worst journey in the world”, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and it has some very candid observations around death. I wish I’d read it some years ago.

  14. This is stunning… More than 40,000 bodies, ordered in a sequence of bones and souls that inhabited those bodies. The architecture reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch, somehow… (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”, mainly).
    I much enjoyed the reading, and your wanderings thoughts and reflections as to life and death.
    A great post, dear Julie! Sending love & best wishes 😉

  15. a living, breathing classic, JD
    breathing in
    seeing myself
    there, not alone
    with at least 40, 000 others.
    breathing out
    seeing the worms
    and the hands-on
    attempt to postpone
    the inevitable universal
    merry-go-ride!

  16. I enjoyed this reflection very much, Julie. There’s something interesting about taking the time to stack the bones, to arrange them in patterns, to occupy such a forceful reminder of those who have been. There is nothing quite like the bones to suggest that once, there was a presence. A life.

    I like to be in the presence of these questions, even if I do not know the answers. To let the breeze of mystery blow past is refreshing. I cannot get excited about the idea of resurrecting husks from DNA, or from imprinting our brains into silicon memories. It seems there is at least one drop of the ineffable in each one of us, and if we didn’t have that, all the rest would be empty. Like the bones.

    Michael

  17. This is a thoughtful and beautiful post on important and interesting topics. Of course in Asia many cultures revolve around the spirits and the afterlife. Our current body and life has the sole purpose of pleasing the spirits and creating a safe journey. In VietNam and Bali, connecting with spirits is merely a normal part of daily life, the present, past and future are less crystalized.

    I understand what you mean by the energy you give up in something as intense energetically as bodywork. There is definitely a transfer, a shift of energy. When I feel drained by giving of too much energy I usually need to “recharge” in nature where the energy is positive and available for us humans to tap into it just by our presence on the earth, rocks, stones and in tge presence of trees.

    Peta

    • Thank you, Peta. I love the idea that we are spirits inhabiting bodies. The Asians have such a healthier way of viewing life and death and the spaces between, in my opinion. Are you a massage therapist?

  18. Bonjour Julie. (And a belated “Bonne Année”)
    I’d seen your previous post appear on my screen as I was traveling. Set it aside to read it at ease. (While I attended my near-explosion inbox) Just read it. “Comments are closed”. Well.
    It made me think of one my ancestors who left France for India in 1794. Died young over there. I always wondered about his mother. Their sending letters back and forth by ship. A single exchange taking months… 🙂 We may have lost some of the poetry of letter writing, but there have been improvements. (Only one month on my part to read your post!) 😉
    Thanks for this post. (Star)dust we are, and to dust we shall return. Until then, I hope you are happy. When will you visit your place at Angers?
    Tous mes voeux mon amie.
    A B-Hug. It’s electronic. You don’t have to touch anyone. 🙂
    (My regards to hubby)

  19. The terrified beauty of bones and your writing move my spirit dear Julie like the winter ice that cracks with the sound of distant whales at the earths belly here in the land of Michigan … and your photography creates such a mysterious mood of its own . Lovely my friend ! 💜

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