A good Christian should never fear death, and should even be able to live in the awareness of its inevitability, having hope and faith in the Resurrection promised by Christ. For a true believer who aspires to eternal life in God, the fear and horror we feel in the face of death itself or of the pain that usually comes with it – both for the dying and for the dear ones surviving – should be limited to a few moments.
Indeed, Saint Francis celebrated “Sister Death” and early Christians used to have the date of their passing written on their funerary inscriptions as their ‘dies natalis’, that is the day of their true birth.
Thus, in the shadows of numerous ancient churches, there are infinite tombs and funerary monuments in which the deceased is depicted in his sleep – waiting to be awakened by the sound of the angels’ trumpets – and often, especially in works from the Baroque era, skulls and skeletons made of marble or bronze adorn sepulchers, reminding us of the words repeated by the priest as he imposes the ashes on the foreheads of the faithful at the beginning of Lent: “Remember man, you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
Furthermore, today big and small museums around the world display the portraits of princes and queens, aristocrats and soldiers: they are a testimony to the talent of their authors, but also a memory of people who are not with us anymore.
They compose a gallery of faces of the dead, of people who walked this earth and now are completely gone. Photography – from its origins in 1839 until the 1950s, and sporadically even today – had an even more explicit approach: think of the tradition of photographic portraits of the deceased, taken on their deathbed or in their coffin before it was closed.
So it seems that the faces of the dead continue to live, and share the present with the living with a closeness that, in a way, is both natural and inevitable.
Think of the custom of embalming pharaohs, who were convinced that they could go on to a second life in the flesh in the world of Osiris; a custom that transferred also to modern personalities such as Lenin, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina and many popes. Or think of the many “death masks” created in ancient and modern times.
In Palermo there is a Capuchin cemetery where the monks stand guard to a series of underground tunnels with walls covered with shelves upon shelves on which hundreds (if not thousands) of mummies are laid. Sometime between the late 1500s and the early 20th century, these bodies underwent a process of natural dehydration and were dressed again with the clothes they had at their funeral: noblemen wear jackets with intricate arabesques, ladies have ornaments around the skull and frothy evening gowns with moldy lace, priests are in their vestments and bishop have their miters. Some hold a wizened book open, with their skeletal fingers, as if they were reading; others, placed one before the other, seem to be playing cards. Some look at the visitor while trying in vain to get out of their coffin, and others are aligned in dusty showcases. What was the purpose of all this? To prove that a good Christian not only does not fear death, but is able to play with it with unparalleled familiarity.
There is a Capuchin cemetery in Rome as well, near the church of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception where Guido Reni’s beautiful painting of the Archangel Michael is on display over an altar. The renovated cemetery today is a regular tourist attraction, with an adjoining bookshop, admission fees, and on certain days even tourists patiently standing in line to enter. What does the cemetery have in store for them? Thousands of mummified cadavers, protruding from the walls like in Palermo? Absolutely not. The Capuchins in Rome came up with a different idea. They decided to use the bones of their brethren, after nature had literally brought them down “to the bone,” to create a fantastic, 18th-century-taste decor with them, adorning walls and door frames, vaults and niches, making chandeliers and other devotional objects.
The cemetery was created by Cardinal Antonio Barberini in 1624; his family dominated the entire area, hence the eponymous square and grand palace. The bizarre aesthetics of the composition was popular almost until the end of the 1800s.
The message? A good Christian can watch man turn into dust after death and not fear it: indeed he can play with the idea, and use bones to make lamps or build shelves, or line up vertebrae and ribs to create motionless flowers on the walls, framing the niches from which skeletons look out, dressed as monks.
There is also another Capuchin cemetery in Rome, similar to the one of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception: the one attached to the church of the Holy Stigmata of Saint Francis, which faces onto Via dei Cestari next to Largo Argentina. Again, the bones of dead monks and of many others who died in the past centuries were used here to make chandeliers and lamps, while skeletons seem to almost smile at those who obtain permission to visit.
There is a third cemetery-ossuary in Rome, with a flying skeleton of death armed with an hourglass, in the crypt of the church of Saint Bartholomew on Tiber Island; it is kept by the Sacconi Rossi Confraternity, who traditionally gave burial to the people drowned in the Tiber (not a rarity in the past centuries) as part of their acts of mercy.
Thus we can say for certain that Rome has no fear of death!