Postcard from Naples, Italy: Skulls of lost souls up for adoption

Quando finisce la partita il re ed il pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola.

The English translation would be: When you finish the game, the king and pawn end up in the same box. In other words: we all meet the same end.

“Best Italian Proverbs,” Rome, Food, Travel

There appears no shortage of ancient Catholic churches in Naples. Yet even by the 16th century, their walls, floors and underground catacombs were oversubscribed by the faithful demanding interment inside. Something needed to give.

Clever undertakers found a solution. They began digging up older remains, the ones of souls long forgotten, to free up space for the newcomers. The ancient bones were carted away discreetly to shallow graves in an enormous system of caves – natural caverns extended by ancient Greek and Roman tunnels and quarries for building materials for the city.

Then came the plague of 1656, decimating the population. The spiraling number of corpses led to their mass disposal atop the existing shallow graves in the caves.

The anonymous pile might have been forgotten were it not for an end-of-the-century flood washing all the bones out and depositing them helter-skelter on the streets below. The bones were returned to the cave, which then was deemed a more official location for disposing of deceased paupers.

An 1837 cholera epidemic swelled the number of residents unceremoniously dumped together in disorderly fashion. The charnel house became known as the Cemetery of the Fountains – Cimitero delle Fontanelle.

In 1872, a priest took pity upon all of the remains of the departed, many tossed inside without receiving their last rites. He had them sorted and arranged in a more orderly fashion, which attracted renewed interest among compassionate Catholics.

A cult arose, as people began to lovingly adopt skulls – capuchelle – of the abandoned souls – pezzentelle – in return for protection. They assigned the unknown names that appeared to them in dreams. They cleaned them, brought them small tokens of their affection, and kept them company.

Then, in 1969, the Archbishop of Naples decreed the practice fetishism and closed the entire ossuary to visitors. The deprivation of visitation rights to ancient adopted kin proved unpopular.

The cemetery was restored in early 2000 but was only unlocked for visitation a couple of times a year. Following protests including an overnight occupation, the cavernous space was reopened on a daily basis in 2010.

Only spotted one caregiver inside. She dashed down the entire length, her boyfriend lagging a ways behind. She stopped mid-right in the last chapel. Obviously, she only had eyes for but one skull amongst the abundance. She stooped to present something to her capuchelle, murmured a word or two, and then dashed back out as quickly as she entered. Her fidanzato rushed to keep up.

As you wander in the dimly lit chambers with bare rock walls and soaring ceilings, the space feels as hallowed as that of any ornately gilded church nave. The named capuchelle do indeed began to assume personalities of a sort, indicating that no two skulls are alike. They all are individuals; each with a story.

As in Mexican cemeteries on the first days of November, by the time you leave, keeping company with the dead no longer appears as bizarre. Eerie, yet somehow soothing.

And there are 30,000, 40,000, maybe even 50,000 more skulls stacked up, waiting for adoption.

Postcard from Malaga, Spain: High season for spotlighting cemeteries

In Memory of Julia and William, Twin Children of James and Ann Simpson, Born at Malaga, October 17, 1859. Died. Julia December 3, 1859. William September 6, 1860. No sin. No sorrow. No complaints our pleasure here destroy. We live with God and all his saints….

Body disposal for non-Catholics in Malaga in the 19th century was a problem. Interment of Protestants was not permitted in the existing graveyards. By law, non-Catholics could only be buried during the night on the beach in a non-restful upright position, hardly comforting to relatives left behind to envision them exposed by tidal fluctuations, easy prey for soothing the hunger pangs of dogs on the prowl.

In 1829, the British Consul succeeded in gaining permission for a cemetery for Protestants on land that was then on the outskirts of town – the first Protestant cemetery in all of Spain.

Among its early residents was Robert Boyd, an Irish-American. Boyd came under the influence of Jose Maria Torrijos y Uriarte (1791-1831), and it is no coincidence they died on the same date. Following his exile in England, Torrijos launched a group of 60 liberals from Gibraltar to deliver a manifesto supporting the constitution of 1812 in opposition to the absolute monarchist Ferdinand VII (1784-1833).

The idealists thought they would land to spread the words that would immediately inspire an uprising. Unfortunately, the king’s men were expecting them. Forty-nine men were executed on San Andres Beach of Malaga. Forty-eight of the men regarded as heroes after the unpopular King Ferdinand VII’s death were interred under a landmark obelisk in the middle of Plaza Merced. Boyd, the Protestant, instead was bound for Cementerio Ingles.

Eight crew members of the SMS Gneisenau found permanent harbor there in December 1900. The Bismarck-class corvette of the German Imperial Navy had full sails to supplement its steam engines and bore a battery of 14 15-centimeter guns, all of which were useless when a fierce storm drove the ship into a stone breakwater at Malaga.

The nonprofit operating the English Cemetery struggles to maintain it. Much of the small graveyard is crumbling. It is far from the elevated aristocratic monumental cemeteries Protestant dead luxuriate in elsewhere in Europe.

But I’ll leave you with the words inscribed on my favorite headstone, that of Joseph Bertram Griffin (1920-1968), who died in Torremolinos. We think his wife, three children and little Zizi (a dog?) missed him, but the inscribed double negative made their feelings unclear. Typos carved in stone:

May God have your soul (in French).

Also with the love of your 3 children and your little Zizi which cannot never forget the wonderfull Daddy and for me husband you was.

Rest in peace. You too, Zizi, whatever and wherever you might be.

Postcard from the Coker Settlement: Book-birthing Celebration

Photos accompanying September 8, 2019, book review by Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News

Spencer has done a masterful job of sifting through a mass of cemetery and other records, finding the threads of family stories, which she has woven together with great care. They reflect the triumphs and travails of the early settlers and their descendants in what was without doubt, at first, a very tough territory….

What makes this book of exceptional interest for anyone with a deep love for and interest in Texas history is the way Spencer relates the family sagas of the early settlers within the larger dynamics of settlement and colonization in early Mexican Texas and after the Texas Revolution.

We learn in detail of the great challenges faced by empresarios Stephen F. Austin, Henri Castro, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels and John O. Meusebach. We learn as well of the settlers who were Mormons and their challenges in the face of intense prejudice in much of what was then the United States.

Most of all, we learn of the interrelatedness of all the families who made up the Coker Settlement, who overcame their cultural and national differences to become, in their own way, Texans and, in time, San Antonians. Spencer deserves considerable credit for the extraordinary amount of detail she provides about the lives of so many settlers, whom she lists at the end of each chapter.

Theirs is a very poignant history, for in time the Great Depression and new sanitation regulations did much to decimate the local dairy industry. Land that was once dotted with dairy farms and their hardworking owners was sold and cleared for tract home developments, schools, the new San Antonio International Airport and malls — and the early settlers were forgotten.

Thanks to Spencer, though, their stories are now well recovered and hopefully will live on for generations to come.

Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News, September 8, 2019

Thanks to Ed Conroy for making time to review Haunting the Graveyard: Unearthing the Story of the Coker Settlement.

Please try to join us for the celebration of the publication from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at The Twig Book Shop at Pearl.