Reverence for the dead as one of the central pillars of Christianity in Italy? Using that as lens you begin to notice how true this is. For example, this Saturday, November 1st, is Tutti i Santi or Ognissanti (All Saints’ Day) while November 2nd, Sunday, is the Festa dei Morti or Commemorazione dei Defunti (Celebration of the Dead) when a great majority of Italian families go to the cemetery to visit their loved ones. Mind you, “Vado a trovare i miei” doesn’t mean “I’m going to visit the graves of my loved ones,” it means “I am going to visit my loved ones.” The difference is subtle but significant.
With the dissolution of the Roman Empire, early Christianity literally “knit” the geopolitical landscape of the Mediterranean back together again through the constant moving and exhibiting of the relics and remains of the martyrs from city to city. So while Pagan Rome had no use for the body after death, Christianity made the dead (holy) body central. For pagan Romans, death was a private family affair and the body was then cremated outside of the cities. Christianity instead made the dead body very public and brought it within the walls, anathema to the Romans! Also, think how the holiest places in any church are the relic or body part of the saint kept on display, as well as the host which through transubstantiation is turned into the body of Christ. In a way, early Christianity basically stipulated that the dead and the dead body were the only conduits through which one’s relationship with the divine could take place.
This concern with the dead body reached its height in the Counter-Reformation. Incredible eye-opening examples of this are the crypts of Cappuccin monks throughout Italy, which not only are the resting places for the deceased monks, but were decorated with their very own bones… candelabra made from tail bones, braziers made with hip bones, niches of interlocking femurs containing artfully arranged skulls in display. These crypts were used both for burial as well as for daily meditation/mediation, as an inspiring place in which to think about and prepare for life after death… memento mori!
Some of these more extreme forms of worship of the dead in Christianity’s history might strike us as macabre, given our contemporary sensibility towards death. That said, the lines to visit the catacombs or the Cappuccin monastery crypts seem… dare we say it… eternal. So too, however, are the more touching lines (less so the traffic jams) to the cemeteries (now once again outside the cities) that you’ll find this Sunday for la festa dei morti.
Dare we say it? Old habits die hard…