Day of the Dead

The ruins of Ancient Rome

Italy sort of celebrates the Day of the Dead.  Not with the vibrant pageantry of Mexico nor in the reflective, communal way that our family has celebrated since Luke died, but it recognizes the holiday enough to give the kids a day off from school.  Combined with All Saints Day, this long weekend justified a trip to Rome.  So on Wednesday, we hopped on a train from Perugia.  We spent Thursday counting fountains, eating gelato and dodging rain.  When Friday arrived.  I felt nostalgic.  I knew if I were home I’d be hanging paper skeletons and lighting candles.  I knew our house would be full of friends.  It would feel warm, sacred and festive.  Instead, it was just the four of us way over here.  But I still wanted that lighthearted, irreverent confrontation with death and I wanted to feel a connection with those who have died, so we did our best to create an itinerary immersed in old bones.

In front of Julius Caesar’s tomb

It started at the tomb of Julius Caesar in the heart of the Roman Forum.  His burial site actually resembles a Day of the Dead alter; there are flowers and notes strewn on nearby rocks in honor of this Roman ruler who was killed 2000 years ago.  We listened to stories of his rise to power and his betrayal by his senate friends (ex-friends, I guess).  Later, we walked to the site of his assassination.  It’s adjacent to the famous Cat Sanctuary.  For a price, you can adopt real Roman cats which are believed to be reincarnations of the ancient emperors.

Hundreds of cats roam the ruins while a group of volunteers takes care of them. There’s a little yellow and white emperor under the temple.  Caesar was stabbed somewhere in this scene.

That evening, we jumped ahead 1500 years (and millions of dead people later) to the Capuchin Crypt.  The guide-book descriptions did not do this place justice.  It was way more edgy than we expected and perfect for our day.   I still don’t quite understand what happened and why, but apparently, about 400 years ago, when the an order of Capuchin friars relocated from their old monastery to the present one at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, they brought the bones of their fellow monks with them.  They didn’t have enough room to bury them all, so they used the bones to create intricate mosaics and decorations all over the walls of their chapel!  Seriously.  And it’s actually pretty.  Coffee colored skulls, femurs and pelvises from thousands of bodies are arranged artistically in four little white alcoves down a warmly lit corridor.  The chandeliers that light the rooms are also made of bones  (small ones, maybe vertebrae and fingers).    Some of the bones have been put together to form a complete skeleton.  Some are just neatly stacked.  Some are arranged in the shape of flowers.  There was a message printed as we peered into one of the rooms that reads, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…

The lighting was much better in person: orangy and atmospheric (not that anyone could ever feel “cozy” in here.)  I wish you could see the entire ceiling in these pictures.

As we were looking around, someone told us the crypt was closing early.  She told us that once a year, on the Day of the Dead, a mass is celebrated among the bones, and we were welcome to stay if we wanted.  I couldn’t believe our luck.  Tom and Ray saw it differently, though, so they chose to get gelato and take a walk with Matt while I joined about 20 live Italians and 4000 dead monks for a short service.

Later on, after we returned to our hotel, I received several emails from friends at home who were making alters, remembering people who died and keeping the spirit of this holiday strong.


6 thoughts on “Day of the Dead

  1. The Church of Santa Maria della Concezion was on our day tour a about six years ago. We had asked our tour guide to show us less common, interesting places and we had no idea such a place existed. For me, this macabre museum was the highlight of my Rome experience. It is something you have to experience to get how powerful it is. It completely overtook my senses, I can still remember the smell of the damp earth; the architectural beauty of what they accomplished is truly exquisite; and witnessing up close and personal so much human history was sobering and beautiful at the same time. I, too, was haunted (not in a bad way) for a very long time by the plaque laid in the dirt: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…” I could have spent more time there so I completely understand why you chose to stay for the Mass. It must have been very moving. I actually thought to mention this as a point of interest when I learned your family was headed to Rome, but it didn’t seem appropriate. Your photos are the best I’ve seen on the web. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    On a lighter note, tell me about the shoulder bag you are carrying… 🙂

  2. What a macabre and wonderful way to honor the dead. Your pictures are always so good. When Dan and Kerri were in Prague they traveled to see a church constructed of bones. The name of the town is Kutna` Hora. You can find it on the web under Bone Church. What great shrines from your friends remembering Luke and others on that very special day. Love you guys!

  3. Oh my goodness, that chapel is intense! What a fortuitous find on the day of the dead. Thought about you guys a lot these last few days – I had half an eye on Bellevue, like I was supposed to be there this weekend. We made our own little altar and celebrated Samhainn at church the other night (the Celtic festival for this time of year). I found Zoe under the dinning room table at one point, hovering over a picture of Luke. It sort of seemed like she was talking to him. Love you and miss you…

  4. Thought about you all day on Friday the 2nd wondering what you all might be doing on this year’s celebration. I am so glad to see that it turned out to be so beautiful. I am sure that your own Roman Warrior, Luke, was with you all. Love you.

  5. How much do I LOVE this post. What an amazing way to spend that special day. Incredible.

    I’m sitting in monsoon Bellevue thinking of you. Baci!

  6. I am looking forward to visiting the “Capuchin Crypt”. Your description is so vivid. It really puts into perspective “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…” Love, Grandpa John

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