S. Elizabeth discusses the scent of death. Perfumes, oils, and other fragrances played a key role in the process of mummifying a body for burial, as well as denoting what status the person held in life. Scents of loss, grief, passage, and remembrance -perfumers and artistic noses have certainly attempted to create fragrances based around these timeless themes to appeal to poetic, melancholic sensibilities. Here, S. Elizabeth shares her thoughts on four of these fragrances.
– S Elizabeth –
S. Elizabeth is a fancier of fine old things, nostalgic whimsies and magics both macabre and melancholy. She is a shadow seamstress, star stitcher, word witch and weaver of the weird. She currently lives among the mosses and swamps, enjoys her coffee a great deal, and is a friend to all felines. You can follow S. Elizabeth on Twitter @mlleghoul
For the living, there are myriad reasons we anoint ourselves with fragrance. Marketing would have us believe that perfume’s sole purpose is for sex and seduction, although many would argue that they wear if for their own, self-centered pleasure that has nothing to do with pleasing others. What then, does perfume have to do with the dead?
“Perfume and death have been on intimate terms for millennia, and not only because each drop is a killing field of flowers”, muses author and blogger Denyse Beaulieu. One of its most ancient uses was embalmment. In fact, the first perfume-related character “featured in a blockbuster book is Mary Magdalene”, who comes to the sepulcher with myrrh and spices to embalm Jesus. Perfumes, oils, and other fragrances played a key role in the process of mummifying a body for burial, as well as denoting what status the person held in life.
According to the Qu’oran, in funeral rites, along with washing the body, one would perfume the dead body with proper scent; (e.g. “kafoor, misk, rose water”, if such is available). The odour of sanctity according to the Catholic Church, is commonly understood to mean a specific scent (often compared to flowers) that emanates from the bodies of saints, especially from the wounds of stigmata. Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Maravillas of Jesus were reported to have emitted heavenly scents immediately after their respective deaths, with Teresa’s scent filling her monastery the moment she died. Saint Thérèse de Lisieux (a French Discalced Carmelite known as “the Little Flower”) was said to have produced a strong scent of roses at her death, which was detectable for days afterward.
Several friends recently shared with me an article titled “French Perfume Maker Bottles Scent Of The Departed”, a product offering “olfactory comfort” to the bereaved, capitalizing on the powerful link between scent and memory. It is through this link which “the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”; a specific fragrance, then, can conjure the presence of the absent.
Scents of loss, grief, passage, and remembrance -perfumers and artistic noses have certainly attempted to create fragrances based around these timeless themes to appeal to poetic, melancholic sensibilities. For conjuring various degrees of sorrow and sadness and contemplation of mortality and the afterlife, I have given my thoughts on four such fragrances currently on the market, below.
“Charogne” Etat Libre d’Orange (not pictured above)
Product Description, from website:
“Her skin is meltingly soft, almost transparent, like an opalescent lily. Forsaking flirtation and modesty, this beauty reveals herself as she truly is, in her superb natural state. She is ripe flesh, ready to be taken by the beast who lies in wait. She releases her vanilla notes, disarmed by the encounter with his leather. It is a fatal attraction, and their embrace will have the taste of eternity…”
Composition : Lily, bergamot, leather, cardamom, ginger, ylang ylang, jasmine, incense, vanilla
Indoles are aromatic heterocyclic organic compounds found in flowers, feces, and rotting flesh and many reviewers say they are the key to Charogne (corpse) by Etat Libre d`Orange. Charogne opens with jasmine, incense, and a murky vanilla, a bit of leather, and moves onto a wistfully melancholy lily accord. Not rotting blooms, but caught just in time, powdered and preserved. A floral tribute to a hushed casket. A very private, intimate scent. The scent of sultry widows who have perhaps lost too many octogenarian husbands and folks are starting to get more than a little suspicious.
“Death and Decay” LUSH
Scent description, from the website:
“ The pure scent of lily mingles with over-ripe tones of indole to give this fragrance a pungent, narcotic headiness. Let it transport you to a serene space where the fullness of beauty and its inevitable decay can be contemplated without fear. The message is one of meditation, acceptance and optimism delivered in a glorious, floral flourish.”
Notes: Lily, Indole, Jasmine Absolute, Ylang Ylang Oil, Tonka Absolute and Rose Oil
Another lily scent, a mass of white lillies, a wreath, perhaps – sweet and clean and full, you can almost envision their alabaster form and curve. A calming, quiet, meditative, floral, almost too fresh to call classic, but it certainly evokes a kind of nostalgia. I don’t know why, but this fragrance calls to mind little girls dressed all in white who don’t know yet to be sad at funerals.
“De Profundis” Serge Lutens
Product description, from website:
“As long as I’m alive, so is my Death. Every hero on a quest for glory is racing towards the proof of his mortality.”
Notes: The scent of chrysanthemums and incense.
De Profundis opens with the scent of big, lively chrysanthemums, in the fall -brisk, slightly spicy and musty. Delicate, dewy violets and damp loamy earth follow shortly thereafter, along with a cool metallic chill that calls to mind a brief wind, rising from nowhere, a shadow that suddenly falls across your path. This is the scent of a pensive cemetery stroll in late autumn, crushed funeral wreaths beneath your feet, the veil of the sun struggling through the clouds, the lingering wisps of incense from morning mass. It is a singularly beautiful and unique fragrance.
“Mississippi Medicine” DL & Durga
Product description, from the website:
“ …this fragrance for men is based on the rituals of the proto- Mississippian death cult of the 1200s.”
Notes: birch tar, violet, white spruce, cypress root and incense.
All scents from DS & Durga have a story, and Mississippi Medicine is no exception. The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (formerly the Southern Cult or Southern Death Cult) is the name given to the “regional stylistic similarity of artifacts, iconography, ceremonies, and mythology of the Mississippian culture… from 1200 CE to 1650 CE.” It was a complex culture with a rich cosmology based on three levels: the Above World, where the Sun, Moon, and Morning Star lived, the Middle or Upper World where humans lived and the Beneath World, a cold dark place where chaos and death ruled. The Beneath World is dark “and stirring with malcontent and danger, a world of snakes and venom, insects and the Corn Mother or The Old Woman Who Never Dies.” It is the rituals to placate her that appear to have inspired the creations of Mississippi Medicine. The fragrance opens with an astringent, peppery cypress, and gives way to a pine-crackling, smoky fire, sweet birch, muddy grass and scorched leaves… and dries down to a sweetly herbaceous, woody, resinous scent that would smell devastating on either a man or a woman (I mention this because it is marketed toward men.)
All told, this is the scent of waking with strange incense in your hair and the vague dream of descending into the dark, dancing and divining with ancestors, and having been part of rituals older than you can imagine. A scent of potent magics – both sacrificial and healing
Although the scent of death itself is widely accepted to be neither an enjoyable nor an acquired taste, it seems quite obvious that the idea of mortality can be and is quite frequently tied to perfume. From ancient practices of accompanying the dead to their final resting place with aromatics and the fragrant burials in Egypt’s pyramids, to the funeral rites in the Qu’oran, fragrance holds a key to matters of mortality. I highly suggest we take advantage of today’s artistic offerings in this vein while we are still above ground and able to appreciate them! All of the scents listed above are still around and available for purchase, and if you are of a mind to “try before you buy”, there are perfume sampling sites available for this purpose.