The Skeletons In The Closet

I admit to a fascination with Death.

But the Death I revere is a fantasy. I have met the real one, and He was not a  ray of light, or promise of more to come, but a yawning, terrifying chasm of nothing. An end.

I much prefer the pretend-Death, he with the black cloak and the scythe, Mediaeval Death, Terry Pratchett’s Death, Dashing Death with a violin,  yawning caves for eyes and endless black charisma.

So I haunt the museum cases where he is represented. I stalk him, collecting his images, reading him, all the time telling myself I am a brave confrontational sort; when in fact I am striving, all the time, to pretend that nothing is something.

I found a coffin with my birthday on it. It was someone else’s death-day back in 1782.It sits in a case as part of the Museum’s metalwork collection. It is interesting that even the greatest museums in the land cannot simply conjure up provenance, and this little locket’s past is shut tight.


This is a memento of someone’s death. People used to leave money in their wills to have little things made to remind their friends of them. It is more personal than what came before, and thus I find it sadder.

No: I am a Memento Mori kind of gal. In the 1500s it was common to wear reminders that we all die. They were Him – Mediaeval Death. Grinning Demise, encapsulated in theatre. Elsewhere in the V&A there is a tiny skeleton in a coffin. Someone found it in Torre Abbey in Devon, but it was ten years to young to have belonged to a monk. Once again, its provenance is shrouded.


It cost the V&A £21 in 1856.

But Memento Mori and personal funerary reminders went out of fashion. These days we prefer youth, it seems.

So imagine my delight when I found a jeweller who did not forget Death. Who created a Death so exquisite it had the world gasping.

This is He.

Image via Southeby's

Image via Southeby’s

Meet the Rouchomovsky Skeleton. Though only three inches long, he is perfectly, exquisitely articulated. And he dates from only  1896, and his sarcophagus 1906.

The man who made this was a strange silversmith indeed. Israel Rouchomovsky first came into the public eye when he was conned by tricksters into creating a tiara sold to the Louvre as Ancient Scythian. But notoriety had its advantages: Rouchomovsky was able to show the world his pride and joy; this skeleton, which had taken him more than a decade to complete.

With 176 moving parts, it is said his favourite part was the lower jaw.

What makes a man work for more than a decade on such a perfect representation of Pretend Death?

Maybe, like me, he had met the real one.


You can read more about the Rouchomovsky Skeleton here, and see its auction details when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s last year here


28 thoughts on “The Skeletons In The Closet

  1. A macabre post to read first thing this morning, Kate, but fascinating as always — like the greybeard loon accosting the Wedding Guest its glittering gaze has one in its thrall!

    1. Who knows, Col? I hope so. I had an op go wrong some years ago now, and had this feeling I had gone right to the edge of life and looked over into what went beyond. It was not to my taste.

  2. I enjoyed these depictions . . . especially that exquisite skeleton. Rather than owning the original, I’ll satisfy myself with the image.

    1. It is a great image, isn’t it, Nancy? I have no idea where Rouchomovsky’s skeleton went after the auction last year. I assume he disappeared into some private collection.

  3. I would wear that. What a cool piece. In a weird way, I think it’s better to be matter-of-fact about Death, because it comes to claim us all. When I think about it that way, I always embrace the moments I’m given, and that’s a better way to live.

  4. That is quite an exquisite sculpture, Kate. Your post prompted me to research it. A year ago, Sotheby’s had estimated that it would be auctioned between $150,000 – $250,000. It actually sold for $365,000. Those bones were worth quite a lot! Death is not something I like to think about, even though I’ve been thinking about it more than I like lately because a close relative is elderly. Have you read Sherwin B. Nuland’s “How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter”? I’ve ordered it. My friend, Coco, has advised me to hide it when special overnight guests visit. It might be a bit of a buzzkill.

  5. I, too, have met the real death, and share your fascination with the romantic version. Maybe that’s why my work is dark. At any rate, these mementos mori are exquisite and melancholy. For some reason, they always make me think of Percy Shelley. Gorgeous post, Kate!

  6. I could live with that skeleton and sarcophagus sitting on my sideboard, but not on my dressing table! Great dedication in the execution of the pieces and in the story about them. Thanks Kate.

  7. Only three inches! Amazing little skeleton. I hadn’t thought about whether or not I’m fascinated with death. I didn’t think so, but then I thought about how I am a little horrified yet fascinated with examples of Victorian death photos. I’m supposing these examples of Memento Mori probably started in England, too. These were really interesting examples, Kate. Hope you had a happy birthday!

  8. The skeleton isxquisite – 3 inches long and 176 moving parts. Fascinating. This is also a hoot to see a skeleton perched on his own coffin. I’m not in any rush to meet the man in the black cape, but I do enjoy mysteries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s