Top 9 Human Remains I’ve Witnessed

I’m not sure when it started, exactly. Maybe in elementary school, when the nuns used to pull me out of class to altar serve funerals because they knew I wouldn’t cry? Maybe when Nova aired that documentary on the Ice Man mummy? Maybe when I started losing my baby teeth and my mom gave me a little box with a cat on it to put them all in? Who knows. Regardless, I’ve long been fascinated with human remains, and throughout my travels, I’ve seen quite a few.

Here are the top 9 I’ve witnessed. Happy Halloween.

9. Vial of one year’s worth of eye boogers from a couple at the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata.

8. Plastinated bodies at Our Body: The Universe Within.

7. Slides of Albert Einstein’s brain at the Mütter Museum.

6. Graves in the cemetery behind my apartment in Brooklyn that someone invited me on a date to one time.

Green-wood cemetery via NYTimes.

Green-wood Cemetery via NYTimes.

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5. The Mummy of Artemidora at the Metropolitan Museum.

4. Oldcroghan Man, a preserved set of remains found in a bog in Ireland.

3. The Incorruptible Tongue of St. Anthony, which was still wet and undecayed 30 years after his death.

2. The Catacombs in Paris, which holds the remains of over 6 million people relocated from overflowing cemeteries.

catacombs

1. Specks of dust on the wind with every breath we take, because there are way more people who are dead than people who are alive. It’s fine.

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 211 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. There are way more dead people than alive people.

    The coolest/most unnerving human remains I’ve seen are the skulls of St. John the Baptist and his mother, which are displayed at the museum housed in the former HQ of the Hohenzollern monarchy in Munich. They’re with a bunch of other religious relics and remains behind glass in a climate-controlled room. The room is kind of tucked into the corner of a hallway and I wandered in there not knowing what it was. Then, skulls!

    Can Halloween be an opportunity to reflect on our own thoughts and fears about death? You already have a skeleton inside you, yet we fear being reduced to one. I’ll just leave it at that.

  2. All of my cool dead body experiences happened <5 which kind of bums me out because I've pretty much blocked them from my memory. I was a morbid kid and my parents were very blunt about the world so when I was tiny I would park myself at my dad's clinic (he did trauma medicine in rural Alaska) and watch all the crazy patients that came in. Beheadings from snowmobiling accidents, bear maulings, suicides, shooting accidents, stupid white tourists in a polar bear exhibit, etc. My dad also worked the morgue so I'd go visit that, too. I don't remember this but apparently I once saw a pretty dramatic muscle spasm in a dead person. The only thing I couldn't handle at the time was dead animals–I went hunting with family when I was three and tried to revive the caribou. I had a total existential crisis about it.
    After I left Alaska, something kind of clicked in my head and I became absolutely terrified of death and I'm pretty much still like that. I can't even handle open casket situations. I had nightmares for weeks after going through really old family photos and finding all sorts of pictures of dead people (momento mori, I guess). I wish I had the guts that I did when I was little.

    • Hmm. To expand on that idea, I think of remains as history. There’s an interest and intrigue into who someone was and what they did, but no emotional reaction to it. When I provided care to a corpse, it was someone I’d known in some professional capacity; most likely someone I’d talked to and had gotten to know.

      Even having only known someone as their nurse or caregiver, it was inescapable that I’d think I’d never hear this person’s voice again or see their smile, never make them laugh. Post-mortem care is never easy. On the contrary if I’m in a graveyard or in a museum, I’m never bothered in the slightest. It becomes history I’m trying to personalize and the only way a graveyard might affect me is if I was at a family or friend’s grave. Even then I’m not “bothered”.

      But taking care of someone just after they’ve died… I never once shied away from it, but it was never easy.

    • The, like, tagline of my life is “jeez, Sara, you’re so morbid”. And this is true, but has nothing to do with my travel photos–which just happen to have a few death touchstones. And So the top however many cemeteries or other otherwise “i had a morbid thought around here” photos of the past decade.

      Japan

      Hiroshima

      I believe most know what Hiroshima is.

      Tojinbo aka Suicide Cliffs

      is a series of basaltic cliffs on the Sea of Japan in Japan.

      One legend has it that a corrupt Buddhist priest from Heisen-ji (平泉寺?), a local temple, so enraged the populace that they dragged him from the temple to the sea and, at Tōjinbō, threw the priest into the sea. His ghost is still said to haunt the area.

      An alternate legend says that the name Tōjinbō comes from a dissolute Buddhist monk. According to the legend, a Buddhist monk named Tōjinbō, who was disliked by everyone, fell in love with a beautiful princess named Aya. Tōjinbō was tricked by another admirer of Princess Aya and was pushed off these cliffs. The legend says that ever after that time Tōjinbō’s vengeful ghost would go on a rampage around the same time every year at this place, causing strong winds and rain. Some decades later, an itinerant priest took pity on Tōjinbō and held a memorial service for him. After that, the storms ceased.

      Also, is also a well-known place in Japan to commit suicide.

      Cambodia
      I chose two photos for Cambodia that are rather less direct than some I took. If anyone would like to see others, I would be happy to provide them.

      S21

      The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum s a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, chronicling the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng (Khmer [tuəl slaeŋ]) means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”. Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country,and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed.

      The Killing Fields

      are a number of sites in Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, immediately after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970–1975). The mass killings are widely regarded as part of a broad state-sponsored genocide

      This is a building where they keep the skulls of those found in this particular killing fields

      Venice Italy

      For some reason gondolas make me think of caskets, I do not know why but I am now writing about a 50000 word book on this

      Nîmes, France.

      The Temple of Diana (Temple de Diane) is a Roman site in Nimes whose ultimate purpose remains a mystery, as does the origin of its name. Believed by some to have been originally built sometime during the reign of Augustus – others say in the 2nd century – it has been suggested that the Temple of Diana may have been a library.

      Charleston SC Cemetery

      Boothill Az Cemetery

      Boot Hill is the name for any number of cemeteries, chiefly in the American West. During the 19th century it was a common name for the burial grounds of gunfighters, or those who “died with their boots on” (i.e., violently).

      Also honorable mention to that old little house my brother didn’t want to buy that had a backyard into a cemetery. Also me suggesting Italy as a place to take my mom for vacation because “well, she’d get to see the Vatican and I’d get to see the Catacombs”… I wonder why she decided somewhere else?

  3. ahhhhh I LOVE this post! Basically you listed a bunch of things and places I want to visit?? In college I became fascinated with the way saint’s bodies were preserved or put on display as well as forensics and how bodies decomposed. Anyways, I love this list.

    • Oooh I would love to talk to you and hear more about the saint stuff. I mean I love talking to you anyway, but what I saw in Germany in terms of reliquaries was truly fascinating. Reliquaries everywhere! Including poking around in the “crypt” area of a very old church and finding a saint’s finger bones preserved in a huge container covered in gold and gems. I wondered how much money the church extracted from the populace to preserve some finger bones for the next ~350 years.

  4. That reminds me of the time I went snooping in my parent’s bedroom when I was a kid and found a jar full of TINY teeth. I was grossed out and confused. Took me a few years to realize they were probably from the “tooth fairy.” But ew, did anyone else’s parents do this?

    • Yes, but WORSE.
      The baby teeth were just hanging out in compartment of my mom’s jewelry box. Not containerized or sanitized in any way AT ALL.
      Which is something that, I, as someone who has made art with bones I find to be kinda gross.
      Unless you boil bones or soak them in certain compounds there’s still tissue attached that can rot etc.

      An’ alla them teeth were just sitting there rotting in that jewerly box probably attracting insects.

  5. I live at below sea level.
    There’s a chance I’ve tripped on human remains at point, or a rock in the stuck in the grooves of a shoe was not a rock at all.
    But most certainly specks of dust because that’s just science y’all like the water of Queen Elizabeth’s time is still around.
    Also I spend 5 days of the week on a road(s) that is cemeteries on all sides.

    Oh and there was that one time when Saint Thérese of Lisieux’s incorrupt body went on tour and stopped in New Orleans. I think I saw someone (my mom maybe) kiss her sarcophagus, but I was just kid and may have been melding her with Snow White.
    Flower crowns make me think of her, mystical people and dead maidens; so of course my witchy ass has two flower crowns.

    • This reminds me of when I was digging around at a community garden in Baltimore. All kinds of stuff was underground, including what was 90% definitely a human vertebrae. Apparently there used to be a graveyard adjacent to where the garden is now. A local guy there just laughed and said, welcome to Baltimore there’s remains of old graveyards everywhere around here.

  6. Yes, love this kind of thing!
    Paris’ catacombs are so cool, although my prevailing memory is actually of giggling at something unrelated and having someone say to us, “Respect the dead! Eh? Non?!” which made me feel bad in hindsight.

    There’s a medical museum in Edinburgh which has some really cool exhibits, but I kinda don’t have the stomach for it anymore because after walking through the area which is just preserved insides as far as the eye can see, I was feeling pretty ill. It’s a lot to take in!

  7. Become an archaeologist and while excavating in an Iron Age necropolis, literally make mud on your arms from sweat and ancient ashes! Regularly ask yourself if this bone is animal or human on a weekly basis. Touch the fingerprints of people who died 7000 years ago!

    For serious, also see the bejeweled skeletons of Bavaria (like Saint Mundita in Peterskirche, Munich), San Maria dell’oraione della Morte in Rome, the Skull Tower in Niš, Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, the Hunterian in London, and the Chapel of Skulls in Czermna.

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