We turn to the dead to understand the processes of life.
Mute and empty-eyed, 139 human skulls stare down from their perches along the wall of the exhibition hall of the Philadelphia College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum. Beneath each a simple cardstock placard speaks for motionless jaws:
Railway Worker (Silesia, now Poland), Trauma
Sailor (Finland), Gun Shot Wounds
Soldier (Ukraine), Suicide
Mason (Switzerland), Diphtheria
Maidservant (Slovenia), Childbed Fever
Brigand (Rome), Died in Prison
Robber (Hungary), Hanged
Cabin Boy (Romania), Cholera
The museum acquired the collection in 1874 from Austrian anatomist Dr. Josef Hyrtl. His small army of Viennese medical students gathered corpses and skulls from charity hospitals, prisons, poorhouses, or the occasional resurrectionist (graverobbers for science).
Hyrtl’s preference for obtaining the heads of the imprisoned, the poor, and suicides began as an attempt to demonstrate the variety of skull shape and disprove phrenology’s claim that shape reflected mental and moral capacity. Now phrenology has been soundly debunked. These skulls, arrayed in a loose grid on the far wall of the museum, contribute instead to a familiar human trope: the severed head as oracle.
Through the dead we seek to imbue our lives with meaning.
From the woodcuts of the Ars moriendi (two 15th-century Christian handbooks on righteous living and dying) to the Jolly Roger flying above a corsair, the skull is a reminder: “Remember your death,” memento mori. The image is peppered throughout the works of countless artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Paul Cezanne, Jose Guadalupe Posada, and Pablo Picasso.
Buddhist and Hindu tantric kapalas are ritual cups and objets d’art carved from the skull or skullcap of a holy man retrieved after a Sky Burial. During this practice, called in Tibet “bya gtor” (bird alms), the corpse is picked clean by buzzards and scavengers, leaving behind only bones. These memento mori are repurposed for transcendental rites after being etched with intricate depictions of myths or inlaid with precious stones and silver. As “karmic vessels,” they retain the good and bad actions of their former owners. Sipping from one of these skulls is said to impart the wisdom and knowledge of the dead upon the bearer.
Guided by the dead we mourn and celebrate our lives.
The fabled musician Orpheus lost his head as well, three times in fact: first to mortal grief over the death of his love, Eurydice, then to abject regret after gazing back at his wife as they emerged from the Underworld, violating Hades’ one stipulation for her return to life, and lastly to the wild Maenads (servants of the god Dionysus) and the river they discarded his dismembered body in.
As Orpheus’ head washed out to sea, he sang songs that made water-smooth stones weep and wanderers in the woods go mad with sorrow.
As featured in narrative structures the world over, from religion to myth to scientific hypothesis, the disjointed body instructs. No longer animated by a life of its own, a severed head becomes trope, theme, motif, moral, lesson, parable, and empirical data point.
Death, the heads seem to say, is the twin of life. Each skull a resilient, repeated lesson on how we live. How we narrate our existence as we seek to understand the interplay of life and death.
Whether it is a humble reminder of your own mortality, a scientific tool, a mystic receptacle of karmic knowledge, or a mourning dirge, the skull speaks with the wisdom of the transfigured:
Hoc quoque finiet
This too shall pass.
This special report brought to you by Mauve Issue contributor Christian Rees.