Momento-Mori, Books Bound in Skin, and Why Some People are Obsessed with Morbid Curiosities

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A few months ago, when an article swept across my social media feeds about how there were three books within Harvard’s library that were bound in human skin, I almost booked a Bolt Bus to Boston right then and there.

It turned out that they were merely, run-of-the-mill sheepskin, but then, a new article produced a full report that did, in fact, prove that Houghton Library owned a book bound in human epidermis. And, well, that got me thinking. Why is it that I, and so many other people, are interested in all the weird things people have done surrounding death?

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 12.25.29 PMMorbid curiosities have recently become something I have taken notice of. I became known as the girl who liked dead things around my coworkers (mostly post-mortem photography, casket plaques, and the occasional animal skull. Nothing too crazy, guys). When I first started bringing things home from flea markets and antique shops, my brother called the shelf that held my fledgling collection my “Wall o’ Death.”

I couldn’t pin where my obsession had started, but when I attempted to explain to people the origins of where each piece of my collection came from, and what they meant when they were created, and what they mean to me today, the more it began to make sense.

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, preserving the memory of a deceased loved one was something done by actually, literally, preserving them. Momento-mori, literally translated to “remember you will die” was the term coined from a poem dating back to the 14th century. Especially during the Victorian Era, which lasted from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, this grieving process included post-mortem photography, hair jewelry and plaques, and, you guessed it, binding books in skin.

The book that Harvard has in their collection, Des destine de l’ame is one from the late 19th century, a momento-mori created in the prime preservation time-period. The inscription reads:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman.”

I’m definitely not alone in this quest to hold onto artifacts of the deceased. Morbid Anatomy Museum, which just moved to a larger and more robust location in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is a place dedicated to “surveying the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture.” They just hosted a singles’ night recently, which was filled with people who had similar interests. I unfortunately missed the May one, and was unable to find my morbid suitor (hey, fellas!).

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 12.25.14 PMIn a society where the acceptance of the impermanence of humanity is often times avoided, I think it’s incredibly noble and intriguing to have something that reminds you of that impermanence. In a time period where the life expectancy was around 40-years-old, people were closer to death at an age that people nowadays are getting married and having kids. They had to accept that they were going to die, and die much sooner than later.

Jane Carylye, a prominent letter-writer during the Victorian era, hailed the inventor of the photograph “as above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to — this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones.”

Death was embraced, not avoided, which led to the creation of the momento-mori I covet today. And without the acceptance of mortality, there is no forward-moving society.

And so, I guess I collect to accept.