A few years back, my wife and I took a trip to Scotland with my brothers and their spouses. We travelled back to the land of our birth to scatter the ashes of my mother and father over the waters of their beloved homeland. After fulfilling our parent’s wishes, my younger brother and his wife drove north to explore the ruins of castles, while my older sibling and his wife joined and me and mine heading south for a cruise of the Mediterranean. We ported in Niece, Monte Carlo, Sicily and my favorite destination Rome.
I had long been fascinated by the eternal city, the history of the empire, the accomplishments, conquests and abuses of the emperors, the rise and fall of one of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world. Upon arrival in Rome, through the brilliant foresight of my sister-in-law, we were not limited to a crowded ship sponsored excursion. She had arranged for our party to be picked up dockside by our own personal driver who escorted us for the entire day on a private tour of the city and its many sights.
Instead of just one or two locations, we visited all the places most favored by tourists, The Colosseum, Circus Maximus, The Trevy Fountain, The Pantheon and Vatican City to name but a few. But for me by far, the most fascinating stop in our long day was not to be found on any cruise line brochure.
The Capuchin Crypt is a collection of six small chapels beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto. The walls of the chapels are adorned with the skeletal remains of friars who have been buried in and exhumed from the holy soil (carted by the friars from Jerusalem) beneath the church. Macabre does not begin to describe it.
Despite what has been written about the place, both by the Catholic Church and its detractors, I find it still to be a curiosity, not only historically, but for what it reveals about human nature and our desire for immortality.
On average, a friar could expect to rest for thirty years or so before being dug up to make room for the next newly departed. I recall in amazement the dark bones decorating the walls in each of the small rooms, and it occurs to me how much like memories are the remains of those holy men, buried, almost forgotten, then dug up and exposed by some unforeseen event. Those bones speak to me as I write.
I rediscovered writing in a Life Story class at my local library. I always regretted not having recorded the remembrances of my parents. After their passing, I had only the shadows of the stories they imparted to me as a child. At first I thought writing my story was about sparing my own children the same sense of disappointment, but I came to realize it was more about telling my own journey in my own voice. It was about telling it for me, more than anyone else. I want to write down what I recall, while I still recall it. My father died of complications of Alzheimer’s and the ghost of his infliction haunts me still.
And so I started digging up the bones. Like the Capuchin friars, I sift the sacred ground of my memories, unsure of what I might discover, recovering pieces buried for decades, one fragment leading to another. I pull them out and arrange them on the wall, the pages of my journal. It’s not a popular tourist stop, just an obscure little place stumbled upon occasionally by people looking for something else entirely, known perhaps only by the locals or a few invited guests.
So far I have only dug in familiar ground, focusing in one or two rooms where the light is good and the floor soft and shallow. But I know there are other rooms where greater force will be required to break the surface, where the shadows cling not so closely to the corners. But whatever I uncover in those dark places, the bones on the walls will be my own.