Halloween has its origins in ancient Celtic traditions concerning the end of the year and the disposition of souls to the otherworld. Eventually, the Catholic church got on board and moved their All Saints Day to November 1, making Halloween All Hallows Eve. Then November 2 is All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead. So the whole time from October 31 to November 2 is about death or dead people. I’m leaving a lot of history out, but Halloween has evolved into a secular holiday where we try to scare the wits out of everybody. Let me tell you right now that no one does this better than the Catholic church.
All you have to do is go into a church and you’re likely to see something more gruesome than in any haunted house. Body parts, whole dead bodies laid out like they’re just taking a little nap, skeletons, skulls – if that’s not enough to make your kids stay awake all night, I don’t know what is. That stuff in haunted houses is all fake – I remember telling myself that the last one I went in when I was about 12. This stuff here is real.
On our recent trip to Gradara, we stopped in a little church and there, laid out in all his glory, was the corpse of St. Clemente. If the many crosses with Jesus’ tortured body were not enough to give you nightmares, then imagine sitting in church with this guy laying next to you. I love his natty attire and wonder if they have to change his clothes every so often. He’s also holding what looks to be a palm frond in his hand. Does that have to be changed out or does it miraculously stay fresh? And I love that they have stuffed him up to look like a real body when his head is nothing but a skeleton. But a skeleton with a beautiful flower garland around the skull.
One of my favorites ghoulish places to visit is the Capuchin Monastery in Rome. They have devised a very clever and artful way to deal with the over 500 years worth of monks’ remains. They have a crypt that’s room after room of scenes designed with bones. Real bones from their dearly departed brethren. I’m not sure of the process they use to harvest these bones, but I must say that the result is quite lovely, in a strange kind of way. At the last room is a plaque with the following quote: What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be. True statement.
Saint Catherine of Siena provides gruesomeness to more than one church. She died in Rome and was promptly buried in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva’s cemetery. When the people of Siena found out their dear Catherine’s body was in Rome, they were desperate to have her back home. Three years after her death, her body was moved from the cemetery to be placed inside the church. That’s when they decided to act. They somehow managed to open the coffin and detach her head. Apparently this was an easy job given that the grave wasn’t sealed tightly and water had seeped in making everything a little spongy. On their way out of Rome, they were stopped by guards who wanted to inspect this package they were carrying. They prayed to St. Catherine for one last miracle and when the guards opened the bag, they found it full of rose petals. When they got back to Siena, the head had materialized again and is now on display in a gilded glass box for all the world to see. There’s also part of her thumb residing in Siena, but I’m not sure how that came to be there. Probably on the same trip as the head raid. It’s said that her left foot and some fingers are in a church in Venice and a rib is in Florence. Possibly a shoulder blade and a hand are in another church in Rome. Poor girl is scattered all over the place, bringing comfort to the masses through her body parts. Full disclosure here – I have not actually seen Saint Catherine’s body parts, but it is on my list. Thanks to Diane for pointing out this delightful story to me.
One of my favorites is Saint Rita of Cascia. She’s the patron saint of impossible causes. Now that’s a saint who gets a lot of action. Saint Rita is enshrined in a glass box in a church in Cascia. She is said to levitate every now and then and even sometimes sits up in her glass box. I love an active corpse. Now, back to the theme of this post which is scary stuff in church – imagine you’re sitting in church one Sunday and look over at Saint Rita and she’s levitating. Do you take that as a good sign or a bad sign?
Then there are the cemeteries here, which are built vertically and resemble little open air houses. Families put photos on the graves, either built into the stonework or just a framed picture that’s placed on top. Cemeteries are fascinating to me and I love to look at the dates and names and connections between people. It’s historic and somehow strangely comforting to know that there’s this bond between the living and the dead. You can also pay to have a light on the grave, which makes this eerie reddish glow around the cemetery at night. A dark cemetery at night can be a frightening place, but this other-worldly light that is cast from Italian cemeteries is downright chilling. It’s like a warning to stay away – this is the land of the dead.
I guess everything is relative in the land of the dead. To some the dead represent hope and miracles. To others they represent the end of life and loss. Whatever the real meaning, we know that the dead are remembered and often revered. They symbolize that life is a cycle and however we honor that cycle, it will continue. All must die, but to die you must live. And I love how the Catholic church has taken death and made it holy. There’s no horror in seeing a decapitated head in church or a mummified body lying next to you while you’re reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Those things make the whole experience even more special by signifying that mortals can be extraordinary. The person sitting next to you might one day be encased in a gilded box. Miracles are all around us – all we have to do is let them into our hearts.