According to an article I read in the newspaper the other day, it seems that it will soon be possible, at a price, to bottle the scent of our loved ones. Our deceased, dead, loved ones.

A French fragrance company has  devised a way to steep their scent – from clothes, their pillows and sheets they have slept in – extract the unique smell; and capture that fragrance, peculiar to the person alone, in a perfume.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. We all know how searingly evocative smell (and perfume) can be in its associative power to bring a person momentarily back to life or make the absent present – and I of course understand perfectly how the poignant smell of an unwashed item of clothing, or a used and unlaundered pillow case could be heart-piercingly painful when inhaled in a moment of grief: the desire to thus keep that smell for as long as possible; the knowledge that this physical remnant of a person will inevitably fade. But yet: the idea of this very private odour being recreated in liquid form for bespoke, commercial purposes (a bottle of your loved one will go for around six hundred dollars) still strikes me as somewhat macabre. It is ethically sound? Would the departed person necessarily have wanted these private smells to be exposed to these strangers?

To me, the concept is mortifying. Perhaps to some extent, my uncomfortable reaction to the thought of being ‘bottled’ is the idea of wondering what particular smell that exists in this teeming mass of cells and bacteria I call my physical self would be ‘captured’ ( I admit that the idea sickens me). Do we, in fact, only have one odour? Could I bear to have that unadorned smell analyzed; reconstituted; and packaged by women and men in white coats?

The unpleasant fact remains, for instance, that my own bedtime pillow is never especially fragrant. You might even say that it stinks. We live in a very humid country, and especially in summer, when I sweat, and it dries, and I sweat, and it dries (I am allergic to air conditioning so it has to be au naturel, and I don’t have the time for daily washing) and Duncan really starts wrinkling his nose, would he then want a parfum de toilette of that stench bestowed upon him in the funeral lounge in the event of my demise as an extremely expensively scented memento (and what would it then be called? ‘Dog In A Swamp?’) The sour-sweat smell of a stressed-out day?; the smell of my bath robe; the sickly aura when I’ve had bronchitis?

The hero of Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume’, Grenouille, was obsessed to the point of complete insanity with the odour of a flame-haired maiden in Paris that he scented one fine day on the air, a smell that so possessed him and maddened him that he had no choice at all but to kill her. White skinned. Beautiful. A virgin. A young girl whose natural body scent so entranced him that he eventually, after abducting her, succeeded in immortalizing her in liquid by enfleuraging her murdered corpse in fat until she had exuded every last drop of her natural essence and he could wear it himself as an elixir; an extrait, a scent so disorientatingly beautiful that he was then consumed and torn to shreds by the crowd. She was an unblemished angel, however, and I fear, that my own enfleuraged natural odour would not quite be up to this level of exquisite, instinctive refinement.

If I could be bottled at my very best, say post-bath; dressed in clean cotton, no deodorant; a walk in the sun for a couple of hours – that smell maybe I wouldn’t mind so much and it would certainly be representative of something. I don’t hate my birthday suit smell in the right conditions, particularly when sun-kissed and happy; horny and free. But even if this particular smell, which certainly isn’t present all the time, were ‘perfected’, would this still really bring me back for people who wanted to remember me? Are we that simplistic?

It’s hard to know if this venture, about to become reality in September, reeks of true compassion or whether there is an element of exploitation: the commodification of something that perhaps we should take with us to the grave. Of ‘perfumes’, kept alive unnaturally, as haunting, and literal liquid ghosts. 

And while the idea of these ‘perfumes’ is fascinating (if somewhat sinister), and I do definitely want to know more about the project, as I can see very clearly that the possibility of even the smallest olfactory glimpse of a person you miss keenly and would do anything to bring back could bring solace in some ways to the bereaved in the darkest moments of despair, at the same time, looking at it in a different way, couldn’t the virtual presence of that person conjured in that way through smell also bring only more torment? The cruel semblance of their corporeal realness, taunting you in the dark?

Even if the true olfactive memory of this person you have lost were kept alive to some extent in its rawness, in its almost pitiable humanity (the smell of hair always makes me feel this way), would you really want that person, in any case, to be reduced, concentrated, to just one intimate, bodily, smell? Could this not, in fact disrupt, almost corrupt even, the complicated beauty of their memory?

For its complexity, its romance, its commingling with a person’s natural smell and spirit, its ability to ignite the heart’s passions when linked to anyone we have known and loved, I know I love perfume, and I am pretty sure that I myself would rather not have this strange, creepy new extraction process done to me (and I would sign a legal order saying the same). At my funeral viewing, if you happen to be present, there may be a selection of perfumes on display to peruse, mull over, and you can see if any of them do the trick. To see if I am brought to life even just slightly. If not, you can just  sigh along to Kate Bush.

You will not be given the opportunity, however, to inhale the smell of my socks; my earwax; or my suit.

Those smells, and others I will have accrued in the meantime, I will be taking with me.


Filed under Flowers


  1. I love this one and completely agree!

  2. It is a creepy concept indeed. But not as creepy as Dutch designer Mark Sturkenboom’s controversial 21 Grams project features a glass dildo that can hold exactly 21 grams of a cremated loved one’s ashes.

    • That just strikes me as pretentious: I can handle it (and I HATED that film as I hated all his films (although I have never seen Birdman)).

      Can’t abide such miserabilism.

      • But actually, now I think about it, the weightiness of the literal remains almost BLOCKING the supposed weight of the soul, something that should be free and in the ether, IS kind of creepy.

        What point do you think he was trying to make?

  3. Sorry if this post was rather morbid, but the morbid requires a morbid response.

  4. Holly

    My initial reaction was horror. Rubbernecking, I read it again. Then again

    I proceeded to imagine a corpse being attended to by whitecoats with bubbling vats and siphons and funnels and machinery with dials. There’s mist swirling in glass globes attached to tubing and the low hum of electricity.

    Both of my parents died in late 2014, my mom six weeks after my dad. They were old, but it was and still remains stunning. At one point I was talking to a friend about some incredibly bizarre behavior exhibited by other friends and family members, and she said very simply “yeah, people are weird about death. My uncle stole my grandfather’s underwear on the day of the funeral.” She said it with great compassion, insight and humor, and although it sounds utterly puerile on the face of it, it’s been profoundly helpful to me. (I actually use it every day when trying to comprehend humanity, and sometimes it’s best to say “that’s weird” or “that’s goofy” and move on rather than getting stuck in a long wailing shriek of despair and incomprehension.)

    I have a lot of experience with death, as I have worked as a nurse first with AIDS patients in the 90’s, and then oncology and bone marrow transplant once AIDS units were no longer necessary in a hospital setting in the US.I have observed voodoo ceremonies conducted over patients with the bloodletting and slaying of chickens at the bedside, been physically assaulted by a doctor when I obtained a DNR from a patient’s wife when her husband went into cardiac arrest, and have remained silent when families have insisted that the patient not know they were dying. I have been a first responder (9/11 NYC). I’m a hospice volunteer. My best friend died 6 years ago, and my partner 5 years ago. I have observed that in regards to death, as a society, we have no clue what we’re doing and when it comes to different cultures and individuals sometimes we just have to sit by silently and breathe. It is a shattering mystery. So I can understand that some people may want to hold onto whatever they can. I’m not sure how beneficial that may be, but I guess it’s up to those who may choose this to decide. Sometimes I find it a comfort and sometimes a torment to say ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I reflect upon all that has gone before: civilizations, cities, individuals, ecologies .. all gone.

    I found a Huffington Post article which may be the one you’re referring to. Some comments suggested that this may prove to be comforting for children and other individuals who are unable to intellectually or emotionally process their grief. What I was curious about was why would they wait until the person was dead? After all, illness affects the way an individual smells, as do accidents and old age. Can they actually discern from clothing and bed linens that the scent they’re distilling is composed of what we remember as opposed to what we’d like to forget? Apparently, they’re “working on” doing the same process for the living. Unfortunately, that will be a harder sell.

    • Beautifully written and very interesting food for thought.

      As I was writing this I was thinking: yes but will I ACTUALLY feel this way when people are gone, wouldn’t I ACTUALLY want to have a scented reminder available ( I’m not sure that I would, though, callous though it sounds: I don’t actually like many natural human odours, and as I say, would hate for that to be how I remember a person – their hair smell, their scarf smell and so on). I was also thinking about the illness smell: surely after they have gone that would be what would be remaining for the ‘perfumers’ to gather).

      I was also aware when writing this that there might be people who have undergone the trauma of losing their loved ones recently ( and I so sorry to hear of your parents’ passing) and hope that I wasn’t coming across as too flippant, even if my black sense of humour in these situations usually always comes to the fore. I feel lucky not to have been exposed to or surrounded by death the way you have, and I admire you for being able to help people in these situations. I know I couldn’t stand it.It’s also definitely true that there is a death taboo in our culture, which is why I also quite like broaching the subject on this blog when it appears relevant (although death is always present in my mind somewhere, I don’t think of myself as especially morbid: I love LIFE, and that is the problem). I wouldn’t judge your uncle, in fact I think there is something very touching about that story, odd though it might appear initially. It must come as such a shock that who knows what we might do in the circumstances.

      • Holly

        I didn’t find you to be flippant in the least.

        I also would not want a scented reminder. Actually, I can’t imagine how that could be authentic – people’s natural smell changes quite frequently, doesn’t it? Which brings me right back around to wondering why this is initially being done for dead people, as opposed to the living. I think it could be therapeutic to use a living scent in certain settings like neonatal units in hospitals. Cynically, I suspect that what is being done might be for the profit factor. Death is a lucrative industry.

        I don’t like a lot of natural human odours either, and I would say that is the norm. Perhaps I’m callous also, as I can’t recall an individual’s smell that I would actually want to possess.

        The uncle story wasn’t mine, but was told to me by a friend when my sister-in-law behaved in an extraordinarily insensitive way after my parents died. It helped me let go of my outrage and judgment.

      • Which I loved.

        And incidentally, they apparently are actually considering doing it for the living as well, for kids away from their parents and so on, but I still don’t know how I feel about it. It feels like theft to me.

  5. We cannot keep the dead alive or living.There is never a comfort for death. To me that is, however a paradox, a solace. To be part of a season, however short, long or interrupted, is a fact of life.
    What we do with a corpse (sorry If I sound brutal) and what we do with the memory of a human being becomes separate. I can imagine grief or despair at a loss, or just a longing for a keepsake.
    The Senses are a part of The living and a smell is transitory, fleeting. It has a season of its own. Thank God!

    • I basically feel the same, but there is something in this idea that haunts me. As a smell obsessive, I just can’t quite imagine how the actual ‘perfume’ would smell.

  6. Rafael

    Interesting article. I agree that “Macabre” is the right word. It all seems lewd and sordid somehow.

  7. It is very interesting and slightly bizarre, yet I understand the thought process behind it. My mother, who is elderly, is not in the best of health and I do not know how long she will be with me. I would find it very comforting to have that certain scent she exudes, it is on her pillow cases and clothing, which is such a sweet and comforting scent. My whole life I have been acutely aware of “her” scent, it is a mama scent. It is very comforting to me and it us uniquely hers. While going through chemotherapy, and medications, her scent changed slightly, but now she has her scent again.
    She also wears Tocade and Alchimie by Rochas, which both mix perfectly with her own scent.
    Now I know anyone might think, “well just remember her in the future by smelling one of those two scents.” But it is not so simple. Mama smells wonderful wearing those fragrances, along with Femme on certain occasions, because they meld so perfectly with her scent.
    So I guess I would enjoy having an olfactory snapshot of my mother’s personal scent so I could always keep her close to me. I guess it also is worth sharing that my mother and I are exceptionally close, so her inevitable passing will be heartbreakingly tragic for me.
    If I could do this process now, while she is still here, so that it would be the comforting scent she has about her, I would definitely do it.

    • What you are saying makes perfect sense to me, and it is good to have someone see this from that perspective. The entire topic is obviously very emotionally laden, and I didn’t tread carefully with it (as I rarely do), I just reacted to the idea and wrote it down. I just wonder though: would it really be ‘her’ scent? How close could it possibly be? I need to know more about the process and the details.

      • I was thinking that also. How close could they actually come to capturing her true essence? Would it just be an approximation? Would it just be the idea of her scent? Those would be variables I would need to know more about. She truly has such a lovely scent. Quite different from mine, which parfumeur Neil Morris told me is just like oak moss, hers is very sweet and enveloping. The mama scent…

      • Mousse De Chene?

        Must be all those classic perfumes from over the years that have settled down into your very bone marrow.

  8. Yes, mousse de chene. He said that is probably why I am so drawn to scents rich in it as an ingredient. At least it is better than emitting the scent of ISO super.

  9. johanob2014

    The idea of capturing and bottling a loved ones’ personal odour,is kinda creepy to me too.I found comfort after the loss of some beloved people,in personal artefacts of them,that smelled of “them”.My grandmother had these lace handkerchiefs in each of her handbags;she never used them,but they stayed in their individual bags for years.The other day I went through some of those,and opened them:it was as if my gran appeared out of nowhere,when I smelled the inside and the little pieces of lace!!(she died in 1989 by the way!)I like the way these scents linked me to my past,and my childhood days spent around her.Anais Anais is one perfume I also always will link to gran,as this and Revlon Moon Drops were her two staple perfumes during the 80’s.These are the scented memories I do prefer.

    • Yes I definitely think it is an ambivalent thing, as I can completely imagine how potent your reactions must have been to smelling your grandmother’s handkerchief again (my grandmother also died in I989, strangely). There is something upsetting and yet very beautiful about it, an apparition of someone you love appearing in that way.

      And yet the thought of that same smell ‘bottled’ still disturbs me.

  10. Tara C

    I just lost my beloved dog on July 4th and she had the most wonderful natural skin/fur scent I have ever smelled. On her last day, I spent many long moments with my face buried in her fur knowing I would never smell that warm delicious scent ever again, to imprint it on my memory. I don’t believe it would be possible to recreate it, because part of its beauty came from the soft furry warmth of her living body, how could a cold liquid possibly reproduce that effect? So no, I would not be interested in trying.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your dog – it must have been devastating for you.

      And I agree; it is the LIVING body that produces this smell: I don’t actually believe its complexity could ever be captured in a bottle.

  11. Lady Murasaki

    Perfume maybe one of my favorite books since I read it when I was 16 and it had an impact in my interest for fragrance ever since (and I prefer the books over the movie even though both are great), but I think the main appeal of that story is its impossibility. The magic, lost forever when Grenouille succumbs taking his nose with him.

    So I’m a little skeptical concerning this concept – as I’m when it comes to another concept wildly publicized some time ago, the perfume that allegedly amplified one’s very own natural scent. But what is this scent? Not even human pheromones are completely proven scientifically, and often a scent of a person involves a lot of external sources – that old, vintage soap grandma used religiously, the note of a cigar entrenched in a man’s hair, not to mention even more abstract notes like that specific moment that dear aunt would put wet white sheets to dry in the bright midday sun… I don’t think it’s possible to capture it completely. And if it’s not completely faithful, it isn’t worthy. I would go as far as saying that touching in such a delicate aspect of life, so fragile, with such claims. is even a little bit questionable.

    I’m not particularly averse to tokens made in honor of a lost loved one, some I find quite charming like jewelry, a tree growing out a grave, or paintings made of ashes (even though it could be seen by some as creepy). But a scent is different, indeed. And as one wise man said once, ”they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”.

    PS: I’m interested to know if some notes are more in harmony with my skin chemistry to the point of being a defining aspect, though… I wonder if my attraction to powdery sweet scents could lead me to an answer.

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