They say the only thing that's certain is death and taxes. I don't know. A lot of people seem to wriggle out of paying their taxes. I am pretty sure we're all going to die.
And surely if there's one day in your life when it doesn't matter how you look, it's the day that it's over. So why have we been compelled—for centuries—to adorn the dead? I mean, when all's said and done, do you really need those earrings?
St. Albertus, a catacomb saint
While we immediately think of King Tut and the Egyptians, the truth is that we've been burying and even embedding our loved ones with their most precious jewels since before modern civilization. And it makes sense: When you think upon death and funerary traditions, stone is really the only common ground. The rest of the details are negotiable.
From mummies encased in gold and gemstones, to treasure-filled Viking ships set ablaze, to Grandmother, laid to rest in her favorite pearls, we're stone worshipers, all of us. Perhaps it's why we cling to our jewels, even in death. We imbue them with meaning and power. And our need to take our treasures with us when we go is undeniable. But can we, really?
Golden funerary mask of Tutankhamen inlaid with lapiz lazuli, obsidian, and turqoise
In 209 BC, the first Emperor of China was buried with thousands of terra-cotta warriors, acrobats, concubines, and servants. Oh, and a palace. Surrounded by flowing rivers of mercury, hills of copper, jeweled gardens, ceilings like the night sky set with pearls; the man was buried with an entire replica world where he intended to after-live forever. Apparently, quite a bit of it made of jewels. Qin Shi Huang was a guy who knew how to take it with him. Clearly those Egyptian Pharaohs had nothing on him. Although they didn't do too bad either.
Perhaps our morbid fixation on what a person brings with them to the grave is an attempt to hold on to the immutable in the face of the inevitable. A last grasp at beauty which does not die, can not fade, and will not decay. Why else bedeck a body before burying it six feet under? Or create elaborate mortuary treasures for the dead (let alone out of them)? This compulsion has to be some sort of final hedge against oblivion. After all, it's a play that's always made in stone. And what is stone, if not eternal?
Terra-cotta soldiers in Xian, China
When Howard Carter broke open Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, the world learned more about ancient Egypt from one grave than we could have imagined. They didn't just hoard their wealth in death, they used it to literally transfigure themselves. They removed body parts and put them in elaborately carved jars of alabaster. In their place were precious jewels. They covered faces with gold and lapis masks. Fingers and toes were gilded; the heart, a gemstone scarab. Pieces removed, pieces replaced; as though they might, as their mythology suggested, not only live again in that very same body, but actually transcend this mortal plane, mutilated and resplendent, and go on to become some sort of glittering, living God.
But the Pharaohs were hardly the only forever beautiful corpses in the world.
A piece of jewellery recovered at Tutankhamen's tomb
In another dark tomb, waiting beneath Rome for over a thousand years, lay the hidden resting place of numerous bodies that would come to be known as the Catacomb Saints. These were birds of a different feather; they didn't take their treasure with them, and they'd been dead a very long time when they were so richly adorned. The ultimate purpose of their riches was to be displayed, not hoarded or hidden away.
Before the Catacomb Saints were saints, they were early Roman Christians and, supposedly, default martyrs. They were discovered and disinterred in 1578, and declared saints by the Papal authority. As such, their bones were desperately sought after by far flung churches as holy objects, entire skeletons even more so. When a church could obtain an intact skeleton it was particularly sacred. A relic, like the shroud of Turin, or a piece of the true cross.
St. Valentinus in Waldsassen
The thing about relics is that you generally find them in reliquaries., those elaborate, jeweled, silver and gold chests. You don't really get one without the other. The relic inside is what makes the ornate jeweled box a reliquary, rather than just treasure—and it's the dazzling reliquary that makes you believe in the inviolability of its contents. They work as a team.
The Catacomb Saints are a funny sort of relic. You see, they have no reliquaries to hold them. Their eyes were replaced with jewels, the ribs were sewn together with golden threads and encrusted with pearls and gems, every inch of them was adorned and gilded. Rather than housing the bones, like traditional relics, the bones were incorporated with the precious materials, and the bodies themselves became the ultimate reliquaries.
Hand of St. Valentin
And what did these giant, fantastical reliquaries hold? Nothing, actually. They were empty. Yet, there had to be something so remarkable it warranted a vessel made of actual saint's bones. A reliquary made of relics, in adoration of martyrs: it must have housed something. So what were they enshrining?
Their contents have long since vanished, but remain the only treasure of any real value that we possess: the human soul. Sinners and saints, rich or poor, eventually we all die. And you can take it with you, it's just that in the end, that's the only jewel worth taking.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.