Skeletons: thoughts on mortal love
Skeletons intrigue and/or frighten most human beings I’ve met. When I painted the above image at the age of 15, the most common feedback from my peers was, “creepy!” But people are drawn to bones nevertheless. They remind us of who we really are, stripped to our essentials, bare of all fleshly guise. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Animal Dreams,” the narrator speaks of her heightened awareness of her skeleton:
“While I brushed my teeth I watched the mirror closely and became aware of my skull: of the fact that my teeth were rooted in bone, and that my jawbones and all the other bones lay just under the surface of what I could see. I wondered how I could have missed noticing, before, all those bones. I was a skeleton with flesh and clothes and thought. We believe there is such a safe distance between the living and the dead.”
I’ve always been fascinated by images of the Mexican holiday Los Dias de los Muertos, during which families decorate the graves of the dead people they love, and generally celebrate death as a part of life. Octavio Paz, a Mexican writer, famously said, “The Mexican… is familiar with death. He jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” Dias de los Muertos paraphernalia may include skull-shaped candies, skull lanterns, skeleton costumes, and all manner of skeleton jokes. Bones are used to symbolize a warm relationship with mortality, an acceptance of one’s own essential, bodily self.
I love the way the holiday tends to merge the aspects of the fleshly living and the stark boniness of the dead.
The Kutna Hora ossuary-church in Prague is a tremendous example of the artistry of the livings’ relationship to human bone. I’m told that the church’s elaborate decor was created by a lone and very imaginative monk, from the remains of over seven thousand victims of the Black Plague.
My school’s “nature lab” has an entire room filled with human skeletons; for me, entering that place is like being surrounded by knowledgable ghosts. I have never been scared of the dead, and the stark beauty of the bare human skeleton is, for me, comforting: the whole human family looks something like this, in the end.
Charles LeDray has made a name for himself through his creation of miniature worlds; some of his creations are tiny, translucent sculptures of carved human bone. I’ve had the exquisite privilege of seeing many of them in person; when observed with the natural eye, they seem to have their own strange light of infinitely delicate strength.
The painting at the top of this post was originally inspired by the prompt, “Depict the bonds of love.” I have no children, but the bond between most parents and their children struck me as the most enduring bond of love I’ve observed (and, come to think of it, taken part in, as the child). I made some preliminary sketches of a sort of skeletal Pieta, then showed them to my mother. Here’s what I said to her, as best as I can recall:
“Mama,” I said, “I want to make a painting like this, of an adult skeleton cradling a baby skeleton. I’m thinking that the love between parents and children is one that goes beyond death; also, that it’s the most essential, necessary kind of human love, just like bones are the most essential structure of the body. And- this is the part I wanted to know your opinion on- parents must love their children even more when they consider that, by passing life on to their children, they’ve finished a step on their own life cycle, and so are especially aware of their own mortality. Is that about right?”
My mom looked down at my sketches and remarked, “It’s not important that they’re skeletons. Their love is the most important thing.” She stood looking for a few silent minutes, then said, very simply and softly, “Yes. That’s about right.”
I started my painting in a rather subdued frame of mind.
Two weeks ago, I attended the memorial service of a high school friend of mine, named Emma, who died unexpectedly, over Thanksgiving, at the age of 19. Everyone who knew her is still in shock over her death, I think. There’s really no way to comfort each other when this happens. Emma’s mother gave the opening eulogy, finishing with a prayer to her daughter, telling Emma to wait, because she, Emma’s mother, still had work to do here, but that she would come to her someday.
We are such beautiful organisms, and we have such breathtaking structures. Our skeletons tie us together in our common mortality, and in the love that reaches over time and dimension and across the threshhold between life and death.
In memory of Emma Rose Coleman, and in honor of the love between Emma and her mother, Rebecca Cross.