Scent is often overlooked in its role in everyday life, let alone in ritual. Most people only acknowledging 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 on. The same is true when it comes to fragrance in art and ritual.
We recognise that artists are those that can create objects that appeal to our spirit through our senses. They are the painters, sculptures, musicians, dancers, performance artist, chefs pushing the limits of food with molecular gastronomy, and the new digital media set, who are all regaled for their ability to speak to the deeper truths of humanity. The perfumers or incense-makers aren’t included on that list. The molecular gastronomist knows that 90% of what we perceive as taste is smelled and uses that to her advantage, but at the end of the day no one walks away from a meal saying that it smelled delicious.
Scent as an artform or use in multisensory experience tends to be viewed with modern eyes as camp, think Smell-O-Ramas or Scratch-N-Sniff, but that has not always been the case. Scent has been used in ritual and life-cycle events since before modern humans 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 they were dazzled by stained glass light. A touch of sage, citrus, and patchouli can turn the strip mall yoga studio next to the fried chicken place into a sacred 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.
The use of scent in funereal practices appears around the world and at almost every time period from Neanderthals to the present. It has often been 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 complex than that. Modern funeral homes do not throw a log of pre-made cookie dough into a toaster oven during a wake to cover the smell of death. They do it to create an atmosphere of comfort and intimacy through scent.
Death/Scent is an academic passion project that has been brewing for a few years. Instead of producing articles to live behind paywalls and damseled in ivory towers I’ve decided to start this blog, on which we will discuss the role of scent in burial practices around the world, as well as learn more about the materials used, and a bit of the history, science, and myth of scent.