Yep, we’re going there (again) with toilets and death. Because like Caitlin said, the unpleasant functions of the body are really good at reminding us of our own mortality. So isn’t the perfect memento mori really just a crypt full of toilets?
Now of course there aren’t actually modern flush toilets down there. It’s more like a room full of carved chairs with holes in the middle. Like a very public outhouse (for corpses). This type of crypt is called a putridarium and you can find them all over Catholic churches in Italy- as far north as Milan and all the way down to Sicily. They’re part of the old tradition of “double death” or “double burial” where the moment of death isn’t the end of the road. It’s just one stop on a journey that the corpse, and maybe more importantly, those who survive them are on.
Now I realize that Italian Catholicism can seem a little death-obsessed. Obviously the post-Vatican II Kumbaya guitar mass never really caught on there. So death is everywhere. Everywhere. Whether it’s carved in marble, set into the floor, or painted on the frescos, your eyeballs are pretty much guaranteed to stare into the empty sockets of a skull in any given church you walk into.
So of course these guys would look at death and burial and think, “Yeah, let’s do that. But twice.” And for a lot of people with a cursory curiosity in these kinds of symbols, the story ends there. Italians love death. Death is the end. Boom. Done. But Catholics also believe that saved souls go to purgatory, then heaven. Then after that they wait for final judgment and the renewal of the world. So for Catholics, death (and death imagery) represents the beginning of a whole new spiritual life. Physical death is just one stop on the line.
This idea of death being a really long process with different phases is acted out in the rituals that start in the putridarium. The fresh corpse is brought down and seated on one of the chairs with a hole in the center. There’s a strainer over the hole that ensures all the bones are saved as various goos and fluid drip out of the body and into the vat below.
This is, frankly, kind of a downer from the corpses’ point of view. No one wants to think about loosing their goo in front of everyone. But if you’re Catholic, purgatory is the spiritual corollary to the putridarium, and isn’t exactly a walk in the park either. Catholics believe that even if you die with all your sins forgiven, you’re still imperfect and imperfect beings are a no-go in heaven. So you have to burn those impurities away. Purgatory is all about purifying fire and punishment. Basically the only thing keeping it from being good old-fashioned hell is the fact that it’s temporary.
But hey, so is the putridarium! After a year or two the corpse turns into a pile of bones. After that the surviving family members or sometimes a clergy member can go down there and clean the bones so they’re white and pure (heavy on the symbolism, guys). Then bones can be arranged in an ossuary. The ossuary is their final resting place. It represents the soul out of purgatory at peace and the survivors are released from their duty to mourn. In fact, the ossuary is frequently a public part of the church or at least visible through a grate so it can serve as a reminder of souls in heaven. So yes, an ossuary is totally a stack of human bones and it’s totally not morbid.
But I hear you. You don’t believe in souls or heaven or purgatory or any of this invisible-sky-wizard business. I get it and I’ve read your letters, internet citizens. But I still like the putridarium! And I still think the putridarium is worthy of our consideration in a secular context.
Because here’s the thing. Even if that corpse is done-zo and there’s nothing after death, the survivors continue to care for the corpse and in doing so, care for themselves after a major loss. Within these Catholic death rituals, the bodies in the putridarium are tended to and dressed in new clothes as they rot. Sometimes public masses are said down in the crypt. And praying for the dead in purgatory is an important spiritual obligation for the living. But even if you take the religious aspect out of it, this adds up to taking a year or more to acclimate to the death of a loved one and in some cases actually watching their body change from someone you knew to an anonymous skeleton. Now confronting death slowly but in a real, visible way might remind you of the promise of eternal reward and inspire you to be a better person. Or it could remind you of the impermanence of life and inspire you to go paint a masterpiece or pet a dog. Either way, confronting death can be all about life. You don’t have to believe in anything to appreciate that.
Now one tiny caveat before I launch my Kickstarter campaign to build a putridarium in Los Angeles. Putridaria started falling out of use in the later part of the 17th century until their extinction in the early 20th century. Mostly because people believed they were unsanitary and that corpses emitted deadly effluvia or miasma. But if you’re caught up on your Ask a Mortician videos, you know that’s basically a bunch of bad science. But you know what’s not? The smell- the oh-so appropriately named cadaverine and putrescine that corpses emit as they decompose. And the bugs. Those are real too. So maaaybe you don’t want to have mass in your un-air conditioned basilica on a 100-degree scorcher in July above a dozen or so rotting friends. I get it. It’s an imperfect system. But consider the putridarium.
Fornaciari, Antonio. “Processi di Tanatometamorfosi: Pratiche di Scolatura dei Corpi e Mummificazione Nel Regno delle Due Sicilie”. Paleopatologia.it Universitá degli Studi di Pisa, 10/04/2010. Web. 05/05/2014
Elizabeth Harper writes about saints’ relics for Atlas Obscura and on her blog, All the Saints You Should Know. She’s lectured on the subject at the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn and at Death Salon Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about relics in Rome. You can follow her on twitter @CadaverFormosus.