Interview – Paul Koudounaris
LA-based art historian and demonic cat expert extraordinaire Paul Koudounaris is best known as the photographer and author of a collection of stunningly beautiful books including Memento Mori, Heavenly Bodies and The Empire of Death. Through his work he has exposed an entire world of long forgotten macabre glory to the public, making many morbid enthusiast’s hearts beat faster. I picked Paul’s brain about his definition of death, his love for cats and the paranormal experiences he’s had with the inanimate subjects of his research.
What is your perception of death? What do you think happens when you die?
Paul: Since you’re interviewing me in the first place, you’re obviously aware that I have written three books on death-related subject matter and spent a lot of years studying the material that went into them. In truth, it took me about ten years to even be able to come to the point that I could truly define for myself what I think “death” is and actually discuss it. Because it’s not easy.
“In truth, ‘death’ isn’t a subject for pathologists or archeologists or people who need tangible objects. It’s a field for philosophers, sociologists, theologians and maybe even poets.”
Death isn’t a material object. Death-related subject matter is extremely popular now, in some circles even broaching on trendy, but the vast majority of people who say they work on death simply don’t. They work on the material culture surrounding death. They study cemeteries. They work on bones. They work with specimens. They work on or with dead things, or things related to the dead, but they’re not working on death itself. In truth, “death” isn’t a subject for pathologists or archeologists or people who need tangible objects. It’s a field for philosophers, sociologists, theologians and maybe even poets.
It probably sounds like I’m being critical here, but that’s not how I intend this answer. I already indicated that it took me ten years to finally to get to the point where I could define and discuss death in a way that was completely disconnected from material things. I think it’s hard to get there because as a society we have pushed death so far out of our consciousness, plus we live under economic systems that are so obsessed with materialism that it’s easy for us to mistake the material culture surrounding death for death itself.
So to finally give you an answer, when I use the word “death”, what I specifically mean is a border or boundary that exists between two social groups: the living and the dead. And that border which death represents is culturally relative and can take various different forms. Basically I consider there to be two poles, and various gradations in between. Death can be a hard border, as it is now in most Western cultures, where the living and dead are basically antithetical groups, and not only should they not interact, for them to do so is considered strange or sinister. Or it can be a soft border, malleable enough to allow interaction, and the two groups are allowed and even encouraged to maintain a social dialogue.
“We live under economic systems that are so obsessed with materialism that it’s easy for us to mistake the material culture surrounding death for death itself.”
As an extreme example of the latter, take the Ma’nene festival in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, which I have photographed in the past. The people there remove their loved ones from the tomb, talk to them, offer things to them, re-dress them, and even walk them around the village.
Western culture is famously arrogant in its insistence that our social mores are something natural and proper; we tend to think that “death” is not at all relative, and the way we deal with the dead is somehow correct, and something like the Ma’nene festival is perverse. In truth, if you look historically and cross culturally, what you’ll find is that we’re actually the weird ones. There are a lot more cultures that have allowed the border to be soft rather than hard, dating all the way back to evidence from Neolithic times, and no one has ever erected a border that’s as impassable as the one we did in the twentieth century.
What do I think happens when you die: First of all, I have no real firm opinion. My intuition and hope is that in the best case scenario it might be something like the concept of nirvana.
What are your own personal experiences with death? Have you lost anyone, or been close to dying yourself?
I have had various friends and relatives die, but I wouldn’t wish to make too much of that because it’s natural within the course of life and everyone experiences such losses at some point. In some cases they make a traumatic impact, but that’s most pronounced when a person has been living in an environment that denies the inevitability of death.
As a child I was very meditative on the topic — which is strange really, because my parents were not. It was something I apparently gravitated towards intuitively. I used to sit around and fantasize about what I might want written on my gravestone if I happened to drop dead. This used to drive my mother mad and caused her to think I was suicidal.
On a personal level I did come extremely close to dying at one point: I was run over by a truck. In fact, the ambulance workers who came to the scene later confessed that they initially believed there was no possible way anyone could have survived. It’s a long story, but in the end I am convinced it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life.
“As a child I was very meditative on the topic of death. I used to sit around and fantasize about what I might want written on my gravestone if I happened to drop dead.”
Did you have a NDE or anything resembling this when you got hit by the truck?
I did not have a “near-death experience,” other than physically of course. I should point out however that I have no recollection of parts of the event. I do remember seeing the grille of the truck becoming very large, and afterward I remember the emergency workers trying to move me. Between the two I remember nothing, so there is a blackout period.
The event did not consciously effect my outlook on death, only on life. As the two are in fact interconnected, I don’t see how it would be possible for one to change the perception of one with it on some level changing the perception of the other.
In what way did this experience change your outlook on life?
I needed to learn to appreciate certain things around me and to gain a new context. Nearly getting killed really does those things for you, at least if you choose to view the experience as a challenge rather than an act of victimization.
But in truth, the deaths that have had the greatest affect on me were those of animals. I had one cat in particular who was with me for 20 years, without doubt the closest relationship I have ever had with any living creature, and her death created a hole that can never be filled. It’s striking how many times I have heard similar stories from people, about how the death of a beloved pet turned out to be more difficult than that of a person.
I have done a lot of work on animal mortality and remembrance, and I think there are very specific reasons for that. First of all, we have culturally accepted customs for mourning a deceased person, but not for mourning an animal, and many people thus struggle individually to find a way to come to terms with the loss of a pet.
But even more important, the idea of an animal’s “person”-ality is a bit of a myth. We form it in our own image. A pet doesn’t come to us as a tabla rasa, but it does, over time, come to reflect back what we project onto it. It winds up becoming an extension of us, an element of our own person externalized and projected onto an animal. So for that reason, when an animal dies, a piece of the person whom it was most close to dies as well.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
In the simple way that reincarnation is sometimes considered, no. I don’t believe that, OK, you have died and for whatever reasons you will now be reborn as a frog or some such. At the same time, if there is one lesson that working on death-related material has taught me, it’s how connected everything is as part of a cycle. And in a sense “reincarnation” is can also define a continuance of that cycle in an altered form.
On a scientific level, if you look at the way matter functions, and the way organic material decays and is reabsorbed, you could argue for that process being a form of reincarnation. To see that process as spiritual however, I guess one needs to really be something of an animist. Anyway, do I believe in reincarnation? In the most common form, no. In a more subtle form, maybe.
Have you ever been in contact with a deceased person or experienced anything paranormal?
We have a certain phenomena we call “ghosts” and we tend to equate them with a visitation of the dead. But there’s not really anything to corroborate the dead as their source. With anything considered paranormal — be it ghosts, angels, UFOs, whatever, you can pretty much look through history and across cultures and find that similar phenomena have always been reported, and the only real difference is how we choose to interpret and contextualize them. So when it comes to that stuff, all I ever do is recount stories and allow people interpret them as they wish and draw their own conclusions. There are many stories I could share, but how about the following.
There was a very famous cat that once lived in Los Angeles. Its name was Room 8, and in the 1950s and 60s it was the mascot of a school down the street from where I live. For a long time I have been drawn to the story of this cat, because as you know I like cats, but also the geographic proximity means that I frequently walk past the school where it lived, and the messages people lovingly carved into the sidewalk upon its death are still very much present.
This cat is buried in one of the local pet cemeteries. One day I decided I needed to take the most perfect picture I could of its grave. When I arrived at the cemetery I realized the sun was in the wrong place. To get the photo right I would have to wait… and wait… and wait. It took four hours for the sun to get exactly where I wanted it to be. All this time I was sitting on Room 8’s grave, really meditating on this cat, its story, what it had meant to people.
I finally got the photo I wanted. As I was leaving the cemetery, a woman was walking in, and she stops and looks at me and says, “is that your cat?” “What cat?” She looks around, shakes her head, and says, “oh I’m sorry, I thought I saw a cat following you. But there’s no cat, never mind.” I asked her what this cat looked like. She described it as a gray tabby. But I already knew that was going to be her answer, because Room 8 was a gray tabby.
From the cemetery I had to drive downtown for the opening party for the LA Art Show. As I am walking around, a lady stops me and says, “There’s a cat following you… it’s not… I don’t know how to explain this… There’s a cat following you, I can see it but at the same time I can’t see it. It’s not a real cat.” I asked her if it was a gray tabby and she said yes, and I told her, “It’s OK, I know about it.”
Later that night I was in a bar. I was talking to a couple people there and girl does a double take and says to us, “Did you see something go walking by? Like an animal?” I asked her what kind of animal it was. She says, “I don’t know, it’s dark, but I thought I saw something walk past your feet about the size of a cat.”
“We have a certain phenomena we call ghosts and we tend to equate them with a visitation of the dead. But there’s not really anything to corroborate the dead as their source.”
What I am getting at is that in this case, clearly something beyond the bounds of normalcy was going on. But people will immediately jump to the conclusion that this means that I was being followed by an animal ghost. That’s one interpretation. But how about another interpretation? I had been sitting on that grave for four hours, really meditating on that specific cat. Could I have become so attenuated to the idea of it, that I was in fact projecting something? Maybe I was projecting the idea of this cat, either unconsciously or with subtle physical cues, in a way that extremely sensitive people could pick up on? Whatever was going on, I think we would have to call it paranormal, and it was fascinating. But interpreting it is up to each person and what they are comfortable believing.
Which ancient burial custom would you like to see making a comeback to our modern day rituals?
Each burial practice is pretty much specific to its culture and I don’t know if they would have a valid place in mine. So I can only judge on an aesthetic level. And in that case, I would have to say Viking burial for one. I would love nothing more than seeing Americans load their dead onto Viking ships.
There was also a custom that was once common in some parts of Italy that would be lovely to see here. When an important person died, they would place his body in a suit of armor, mount it on a horse, and have the horse walk down the aisle of the local church until the armor fell off, clattering on the ground, and exposing the corpse. I would be a very happy person if I could go to American churches and see armored corpses falling from the backs of horses. In fact, it might actually be detrimental for me, because I would get no work done whatsoever as I would be spending all day in churches sitting around waiting for horses to arrive.
Pick a favorite: cats or corpses?
There are potential mitigating factors in this answer. The best of cats will always trump corpses, but really bad cats can be awful to deal with. Also, before I choose cats, I need to know that there will be a reasonable limit. I don’t want to choose cats and have you show up at my door with 500 of them. So if it is a situation where I must live with one or the other, and if you promise to deliver them only in moderation, I will take the cats. They are more fun. Cats chase string; have you ever tried dangling a piece of string in front of a corpse? It will completely ignore you.
Which corpse you encountered through your work has made the strongest or strangest impression on you and why?
Usually people ask me about a specific site, rather than a specific body. That’s kind of tough, since so many of them are anonymous, and in the ossuaries I have photographed the bones of individual skeletons are all dispersed. But the strongest connections I felt to individual bodies were by far with some of the jeweled skeletons I studied and photographed for my book Heavenly Bodies. In large part I think that was due to a technique I had developed of personalizing them when I went to take the photos. It’s not something you can distinctly pick up on when you look at the pictures, but I wanted to give each one some kind of expressive quality, to put something of myself into each of them. So whenever I encountered a new one, I immediately tried to meditate on them and instill my initial intuitive reaction to them into a single word: maybe pride, vanity, strength… Just whatever I instinctively felt when I first saw that skeleton. I would try to define that feeling and then use it as a guide for the photos. I thought it could make the photos richer in some way, although I realize the qualities I felt came much more from my reactions rather than anything being projected.
There was one in particular: St. Valerius in Weyarn, Germany. It was a bleak rainy day and the buses were running late, meaning I would have very little time in the church. The priest let me in quickly and as I stood in front of Valerius, I didn’t even have to meditate on him like I did with the others. It was an immediate sensation, in this case not even really a single word that I can explain, but more like a very subtle emotion. One of abandonment and sadness, yet also hubris, all mixed together. In my head I immediately knew exactly what he needed to look like. I took one picture. Yeah, I thought, that’s him. Or rather, that’s him interpreted though me. I picked up the camera to leave and the priest seemed surprised. I still had a bit of time, didn’t I want to take a few more shots? I told him, “No, this is it, this is all I need.”
Later I did go back at my publisher’s urging to take a few more photos and get some detail shots. But none of the photos I took again ever matched that first one. What does all this amount to? Well, when the book was being laid out, the designers sent me a draft. They had NOT included that particular photo of Valerius. I went into a fury. I told them to not only get it in, but to put it towards the front of the book. They said it was too flawed, too dark, hazy in some parts, etc. I told them I didn’t care if it was black, just get that picture in the book and do not send me anything further until it’s in. So they acquiesced and put the photo in. When the book finally came out, those photos went absolutely viral because no one had ever seen pictures like that before. And the image that was included in every write up, the one that became the most iconic, was that picture of Valerius. And I know why. It’s nothing you can see in the photo, but I myself am more in that picture than any of the others, that’s the one photo where the strongest connection was made. It’s nothing you can easily pick up on, but it’s by far the most expressive picture.
What’s your favorite cemetery?
To be honest I don’t really care much for human cemeteries. All these elegant Victorian cemeteries with their lovely sculptures have really never done much to me. I find it to be a rhetorical language that is the exact opposite of emotive — if anything, it’s a language designed to convey the idea of loss without expressing anything personally emotive from the people involved.
So for me it’s pet cemeteries. Especially the off the grid ones we have out in the Western part of the USA. Out in the desert or the woods, started illegally and little known to outsiders, where everything is handmade and each person is left to convey the depth of loss of a beloved pet in their own terms and with whatever crude materials they have. Those are my favorites. They’re like the Art Brut of mourning. Raw, unschooled, uncontrived, driven by emotion rather than technique. Those places always bring me to tears.
There are three big ones out here. One is outside of Bishop, California; another (unfortunately nearly destroyed now) is near Boulder City, Nevada; and the third is on an Indian reservation in Winterhaven, California. In the latter, there is a tiny little grave marker, painted on a piece of wood. It says something to the extent of stray cat, killed by the side of the road, buried by people who cared. That gets me, it communicates so directly. I’ll take that tiny little wooden plaque over the huge angel of death sculptures and fancy mausoleums any day. In Europe, for me it’s the pet cemetery in Helsinki. The tradition there is to hand paint a portrait of your pet on a wooden slab and use that as a grave marker. Go there on a spring day, when everything is green and slightly damp. Go at dusk. It’s like a pet cemetery designed by elves. Beautiful.
“I’ll take that tiny little wooden plaque at the pet cemetery over the huge angel of death sculptures and fancy mausoleums any day.”
Coming from a family of grave robbers, do you have tips for people who like to visit cemeteries but are still too scared to try and open mausoleums and have a look inside?
Well wait — I had one relative who used to steal from cemeteries, my great grandfather, and I never even met him. It’s not like it was a family business. For those unfamiliar with this story, my great grandfather was Greek but grew up in Egypt, in Alexandria. At the time there was still a trade in mumia, which was ground mummy dust, and snorting it was thought to have therapeutic properties. If this sounds strange or barbaric: even Western pharmaceutical companies were selling it. Merck still offered it in their catalogue through the 1920s. My great grandfather was part of a crew that used to take recently deceased bodies, cover them in tar, bury them out in the Sahara for a year or so until they were really cooked, and then sell them as “authentic” Egyptian mummies for apothecaries to grind up into powder. Sometimes they would get the bodies of executed criminals, or buy them from a morgue, or yes, just steal them. Anyway, as for people who don’t want to look inside a mausoleum: just don’t look inside.
Do you have any ideas or wishes for your own funeral and how to dispose of your body?
I have been asked this question a lot. I always wish I could give some grand answer. Perhaps I should fabricate one. But in truth I don’t care at all. I would say, whatever pleases my friends. They’re my social group, and so if there is a way I can give them edification post mortem, then let it be so. I don’t know what that would be. Maybe string my bones up as a marionette? Stuff me and put me on a taxidermy lion with a sword in my hand? It’s up to my friends.
And what will you do with Bob when she dies?
As I have spent so much time in pet cemeteries, I have thought about it before. I have never come to a firm answer, but I will tell you what I would never do: I would never stuff her or prepare her skeleton. Those are not the parts of her that I need. The part of her I need is that little spark of life that resides mysteriously in there somewhere. When that’s gone I have no need for a tangible relic. I have mentioned those off the grid pet cemeteries out here in California. I might take her to one of those. Bury her with all those other animals that were loved. Not in a coffin, nothing fancy. With a simple marker, one that is fragile and will deteriorate over her grave. Just as a temporary symbol that she was loved, and then released. She will live permanently in my heart, so I have no need for a permanent memorial
Are you working on any exciting new (book) projects right now you can tell me about?
At one point I wanted to write a book about pet cemeteries and animal memorials. I rarely give death talks anymore, most of the talks I do are about obscure animal history. But in terms of a book or photo project, all of that has been pushed aside for the cat portraits.
For those who are unaware, it turns out that my cat is an amazing model. Meaning, she goes beyond wearing a costume and can actually be coaxed into conveying expression. She can create a character. So I have been working on a series of caricatures with her of famous people and various social and historical types. I want to write a book under her name, using those photos, to serve as a feline guide to human history. What does would a cat think about the Renaissance? She is going to tell you — and show you, dressed up as William Shakes-paw. What do cats think about Russian history? She will tell you, dressed as Cat-sputin (hint, cats love Rasputin —think about it, they couldn’t kill him, nine lives). And so on. That’s where I am right now. A lot of people think I may have lost it. But even if I have, great. Because I couldn’t be happier.
Photo credits: all images by Paul Koudounaris