Death/Scent is Nuri’s passion project exploring the role of scent in burial practices around the world. Starting in 2016, the site examines the cultural importance of olfaction and rituals, the materials used, and the science of putrefaction, as well as the taboos and myths around olfaction and death.
Top Articles on Death/Scent
The Chemistry of Death and Desire
Disasters, Mysteries, and Perfume: Unearthing the Philistines
The Fragrance of the Soul: Olfaction & Death in Ancient Egyptian Religion
Bottling Ghosts: Can & Should We Try to Capture the Scent of Our Dead Loved Ones?
Odour is often overlooked in its role in everyday life, let alone in ritual. Most people only acknowledge their olfactory senses when something unpleasant wafts their way. Though the sense of smell can affect mood, perception, and memory more so than any other sense, it tends to be the last thing we think about. The same is true when it comes to fragrance in art and ritual.
Scent as an art form or used in multisensory experiences tends to be viewed with modern eyes as camp; think Smell-O-Ramas or Scratch-N-Sniff. That, however, has not always been the case. Fragrance has been used in ritual and life-cycle events since time immemorial, specifically for its near magical abilities to recall memories and create emotions. For Catholics, one swing of the thurible, wafting sacred smoke can take them back to a moment in childhood when faith was absolute and dazzling. A touch of sage, citrus, and patchouli can turn the strip mall yoga studio next to a fried chicken restaurant into a holy ashram. Stumble across a bottle of your grandmother’s Youth Dew while preparing her home for an estate sale and try not to cry. Her home, clothes, and photos will not hold her essence as well as that little bow-waisted bottle.
Fragrant materials are used in funeral practices around the world and in almost every time period from Neanderthals to the present. It is often assumed that fragrance serves solely as a mask for the scent of death. While that may be true in some cases, it is far more complicated. Modern funeral homes do not throw a log of pre-made cookie dough into a toaster before a viewing to cover the smell of death. They do it to create an atmosphere of comfort and intimacy through scent. Aromatics are important cultural artefacts that can tell us a great deal about what a culture values and how they see the world.