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Centre for Life offers talk about death from Dr Paul Koudounaris

Dr Paul Koudounaris is to talk about the culture of death and mortality at Newcastle's Centre for Life

Skeleton of St Pancratius at the Church of St Nikolaus, Wil, Switzerland
Skeleton of St Pancratius at the Church of St Nikolaus, Wil, Switzerland

A talk about death is to take place at Life on Thursday. It promises to be more flamboyant than you might imagine.

Coinciding with the Body Worlds Vital exhibition at the Centre for Life, it is to be delivered by Dr Paul Koudounaris who was flying in from California for the occasion.

Dr Koudounaris is the author of two books about the visual culture of death and mortality.

The first, Empire of Death, is a cultural history of ossuaries and charnel houses (places where bones were stored). The follow-up, Heavenly Bodies, documents “cult treasures and spectacular saints from the catacombs” and is full of fabulously bejewelled skeletons looking, as skeletons generally do, extremely pleased with themselves.

On the phone from Los Angeles, Dr Koudounaris says: “Our relationship with the dead has changed drastically since the start of the 20th Century.”

Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) of the parish Church of Nossa Senhora Da Expectaçao, Campo Maior, Portugal
Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) of the parish Church of Nossa Senhora Da Expectaçao, Campo Maior, Portugal

Nobody – except, perhaps, Damien Hirst – would consider sharing living space these days with a gem-encrusted skeleton. But the fascination is there, as evidenced by the Life exhibition, featuring the bodies preserved by Dr Gunther von Hagens through his ‘plastination’ process.

Dr Koudounaris says he considers von Hagens to be “a great artist” with “an incredible technique”. But he points out that whereas the German’s concerns are secular, his field of research is largely religious.

He fell into it, he says, “by total accident, like so many things”. He had just finished a PhD in art history and was travelling in Eastern Europe and wondering what to do next.

“I was in this town one day and wandered into this outstanding charnel house under a church. I was familiar with the famous stuff, like the Paris catacombs, but this was an absolutely amazing site and even people in the town didn’t seem to know it was there.

“It raised the question in my own mind: I wonder how many other places there are like this?”

The books give us the answer: lots. Dr Koudounaris has made a name for himself in this specialist field and worn out shoe leather in the process. The first book alone contains 260 of his own photographs.

St Felix, Gars an Inn, Germany
St Felix, Gars an Inn, Germany

A third book is due. This, to be called Memento Mori, opens up the area of research beyond Europe to focus on special sites across Asia, Africa and South America.

Understandably, perhaps, the question ‘What next?’ draws a rather weary response.

“I have been doing this for 10 years. To be honest, unless we discover charnel houses on the Moon, I think I’ve pretty well done what I can with it. I really am looking for a change of direction.”

And it seems he has found it in animals. Yes, having done human remains, Dr Koudounaris has started to talk tentatively to publishers about the possibility of a new book about the way we deal with our dear departed pets.

“It has to be treated in the right way,” he says. “There are lots of books about what to do when your dog dies but this is more to do with the process of commemoration. I want to treat it like a graphic novel.”

Even as he talks to his Centre for Life audience about human bones, this owner of three cats will be thinking about our furred and feathered friends. He reveals he is keen to make acquaintance with Sparky the budgie, a star exhibit at Great North Museum: Hancock long after his last uncannily human utterance.

Dr Koudounaris’s lecture at Life is at 6.30pm on Thursday and it’s suitable for ages 16 plus. To book tickets call 0191 2438210 or go to www.life.org.uk


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