The triumph of Death: the mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt

Vertebrae rosettes. A crown of thorns made from finger bones. An arch of skulls.

Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.

I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.

I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.

So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.

Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.

The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.

Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.

Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.

A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”

I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”

So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.

Life is short, my friends, live it well.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.

[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]