Yesterday, I visited the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. In a grotto about a mile or so from the center of the modern city are found the preserved remains of about 2,000 people who paid the monks to preserve their bodies after death, dress them in their finest clothing, and put them on display. Each of them is placed in its own niche along the wall, held up by iron bands, and has a tag around its neck with its name and date of death. The bodies are not displayed in random order: they are sorted (to some extent) by sex, profession, and familial status. In one large recess, a number of children’s skeletons are on display, many of them in heartbreakingly tiny coffins. In another corridor, friar after friar hangs in his robes, some with cords around their necks signifying their adherence to a Franciscan order. Almost indistinguishable from the cords are the braids still hanging from the heads of some of the women’s bodies. Some families are arranged together; in another corridor doctors and lawyers are segregated and in yet another female virgins are gathered together. The oldest body I saw dated from 1599 – high on a wall hangs the body of a monk whose name was almost illegible but who hailed from the Umbrian hill town of Gubbio.
Some of the skeletons presented death’s heads; others had skin dried to a leathery tightness over remaining bony protuberances. Some of their outfits are well preserved; others have disintegrated under the relentless assault of the years. The practice became illegal around 1880, but until then, people chose – or perhaps their relatives chose for them – to be preserved in this seemingly macabre manner.
And yet the impression made on the viewer – or at least on this viewer – is anything but macabre. Instead, the display served as a fascinating reminder of the materiality and inevitability of death, of the claim to uniqueness and unrepeatability that a person represents, and of the significance of resurrection hope to many believers. Indeed, “I am the resurrection and the life” is cited in one of the archways under which the bodies line up, and in another a cross is displayed triumphant as a reminder of the relation between Christ’s resurrection and that of the believer (“If Christ is not raised, our hope is nothing.”) In a culture marked by oft-decried, death-denying and death-sanitizing tendencies, these preserved corpses serve as a direct, yet strangely gentle, reminder of finitude, limitation, and materiality. Instead of mouldering away hidden far below ground, these corpses remind us not only (as in the famous memento mori) that as we now are, they once were, and as they now are, we will also be. They also show us the beauty of human claims to meaningfulness and unrepeatability in life.
Despite death’s famous leveling tendencies, however, not all are equal in this place. Social, financial, and spiritual segregation all remain. The very decision to have one’s body displayed in this way is already an investment in the perpetuation of empirical existence marked by social distinction. Those who paid for the service either had the financial resources to do so easily, or scrimped and saved in order to get in. The decayed vestments of high church officials compete with the frayed brown habits of Franciscan friars to suggest the ambiguities of religious commitment for the hope of salvific efficacy. For after all, these bodies remain: and for those of us who believe (as I do) that human persons have no intrinsic immortality (but would have to be given immortality as a lent gift by the only one to whom life itself belongs), these bodies are also what we are as human beings.
The presence of death, communicated by all these wasting remains of bodies, nonetheless serves to overwhelm the distinctions that labeling, sorting, and preservation are intended to effect. For many of these distinctions become indistinguishable but for the designations written on the walls by the friars who still preserve this place. The combination of particularity and specificity – this shoe, this favorite dress, this much-mended cassock – with the universal subjection of all to the forces of time, renders the odd status of human beings utterly poignant. I was left torn between sorrow and hope: sorrow for the dreams of those who, with loving hands, dressed the remains of their children and preserved them in this place; hope for those who fell asleep with hope in the resurrection.
In many feminist circles, resurrection serves as a trope for human, especially masculine, megalomania. The dream of a life without limit serves to deny finitude. Yet the materiality of these preserved remains affirms finitude in its concrete particularity in a way no theory can account for. For these persons, the reality of death and the hope of resurrection stem from the same root rather than standing in contradiction to each other. One carries the other with it. In their claim to space, in the forceful recognition of ourselves that these bodies represent, at least one form of resurrection in memory is already available to them. And I would not choose to deny them the other form thereof: the one that their bodies await.
(Thanks to Daniel Schultz for helping me work through some of the ideas in this piece.)
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled “God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.”
Categories: Ancestors, Art, Belief, Body, Catholic Church, Children, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Death and Dying, Embodiment, Family, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Grief, Loss, Resurrection, Theology