A season when cemeteries reunite the living and the dead

Above: No rearranging of the surroundings would be needed to film a horror movie in the dark and cavernous Cimitero delle Fontanelle in Naples, Italy.

It’s not surprising that a writer who would include Haunting the Graveyard as part of a book title is drawn to cemeteries. A few random headstones can reveal stories about individuals and entire communities.

Someone in the family demonstrates great patience with sating my taphophilia wherever we travel. Naturally, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are among my favorite times to do so. Posts in this blog are filled with the resulting photos, and the links below will take you to a few from our past travels. So many graveyards from which to choose….

cimitero delle fontanelle

To perk your interest, let’s just head straight for a sensational, truly frightening cemetery – Cimitero delle Fontanelle in Naples, Italy. If this dimly lit cavernous space filled with the bones of thousands of victims of a 16th-century plague were used as the backdrop for a horror film, it would appear almost ludicrously fake. Yet the space is an extremely spiritual one where members of a Catholic cult adopt and name skulls, lovingly caring for their wards in exchange for protection. Postcard from Naples, Italy: Skulls of lost souls up for adoption

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869
wall of skulls in crypt under Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome

During a European tour, Mark Twain encountered the rather amazing ossuary comprised of remains of Capuchin monks tucked away in a crypt under Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. Here, thigh bones are no longer connected to hip bones, their related arms or ribs found grouped in entirely different chapels. Passageways are barely lit by the glimmer of lights in chandeliers, several made of obsessively sorted bones.

Unfortunately, photography is forbidden, but a longer excerpt of Mark Twain’s description of the assemblages still rings true and can be found by scrolling more than halfway down the referenced blog post, past the photo of the reliquary containing one of Mary Magdalene’s feet and a collage of other images from several Roman churches. Postcard from Rome, Italy: Church tour for the fleet of foot

Enough bones for now. I’ll exercise some discipline, skipping over a multitude of crypts, cemeteries and churches filled with reliquaries of saints’ bones or an occasional body remaining miraculously “incorruptu” to the traditional graveside visitations associated with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, Catholicism is but a recent thin veneer topping centuries of ancient Mayan beliefs. San Juan Chamula in the state of Chiapas is in the heart of that land. November 1 is celebrated as Dia de los Inocentes, a time to communicate with all the small children your family might have lost. November 2 is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

preparing graves for Dia de los Muertos in San Juan Chamula.

Preparing graves for annual gatherings for Day of the Dead commemorations in San Juan Chamula

As San Juan Chamula operates under its own set of laws, including ones that prohibit most photography, the post’s photos of the faithful cleaning grave sites of loved ones outside the ruins of an ancient church were taken from a distance away. Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Grooming graves to welcome back the dead

Misty clouds shrouded the cemetery on El Dia de los Muertos when we ventured up into the pine-covered mountains to the small Chamulan town of Romerillo, also in Chiapas. During the rest of the year, boards shutter the deceased in their graves, but, on the Day of the Dead, the boards are flung open. The mounds are cleaned and freshened with fresh pine needles and marigold petals to invite the departed to join family members for a lively fiesta with no shortage of carnival rides, food booths and bands.

Above: Removing boards from graves in Romerillo in Chiapas frees the dead to return for festivities.

While the oozing mud sucking off my shoes made me feel as though souls below were trying to pull me down under, the townspeople appeared unbothered by our presence amongst the graves. Not another tourist was in sight, which added to the magic of the experience. Postcard from Romerillo, Chiapas, Mexico: Day of the Dead Mudfest

And, strangely, in Chiapas there is always Coca-Cola. Both the dead, who have it delivered directly to their graves, and the living are extremely brand conscious. To expel evil spirits, burping is encouraged. Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Coke is for everyone, dead or alive

Perhaps I might put in an advance request for a fine bottle of mezcal instead – just in case my ashes somehow manage to rise up and join the annual fiestas.

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