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.
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.
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…”
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.