Michael Waterhouse

Remembering Loved Ones By Their Smell

The Changing Face of Death: Historical Accounts of Death and Disposal


Macmillan Academic Press 216pp £40 order from our bookshop

Nineteenth-century Bretons had their own distinctive obsession with death. When the novelist Prosper Mérimée visited Brittany in the 1830s, he was appalled to discover that it was usual to dig up the dead after a few years and rebury them in a lean-to next to the church. By the time they were unearthed the bones should have been clean, but decomposition was often incomplete and, Mérimée vividly recalls, ‘shreds of putrefying flesh [would] attract dogs which no one cares to chase away’.

The bones were heaped on to the existing pile in a structure that was open to the skies, since it was as much a function of the ossuary that the bones be displayed – memento mori – as sheltered. At Saint- Thégonnes, the genius loci

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