Tucked away in nooks and crannies, packing niches and crevices in tunnels and catacombs across Europe, are the bones of monks and common folk alike. The Necropolis of Paris is the second final resting place (tongue-in-cheek intended) of millions of Parisians whose mortal remains were relocated to the sprawling tunnel system in the late 1700’s to recover precious land for the living. The artful arrangement of skulls and femurs and ribs and wishbones at Rome’s Capuchin Crypt is (according to TripAdvisor) nearly as popular an attraction as the Vatican Gardens and the Spanish Steps. Crypts and churches and catacombs across Europe are favorite places for the living to visit, as we were recently reminded visiting the aptly-named Crypt of Bones in Evora, Portugal.
If there is some creative arrangement of human remains on display nearby, we go out of our way to see it. Much like if there is an impossibly tall tower to climb, we will scale it (though less and less as creaks develop in our knees and we ourselves approach the inevitability of being reduced to a pile of bones).
We–the living, breathing, camera-toting–travelers seem to have a macabre fascination with these places. For many, I suspect, it’s simply a tourist’s rubber-necking opportunity, a chance to leer as they stroll on to the next museum or monument. For others, and I hope we are in this group, it might be a chance to feel that much more alive in the face of the outcome that awaits us all.
It is the reason that many of these places were created, and it was written over the doors to the Crypt of Bones in Evora…
Nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos: We bones here wait for you.
While I hope y’all there will have to wait a good bit longer, I get your point. And I suspect many of the other gawking tourists do, too. It’s like Ash Wednesday without the dirty brow and all the theology: it’s a drive-through Lenten lesson in mortality, available all year, usually for about 3 or 4 Euros.
I can’t help but stare at a skull and wonder things like, did you have as wonderful a spouse as I? Were your kids and grandkids as pride-inducing as mine? Did you enjoy your life as much as I am enjoying mine? Have you never been mellow, have you never tried?
Back in 2004 we brought our kids with us for a European vacation. The trip included Paris and the necropolis. You descend winding, twisty stairs deep into the ground, beneath apartment buildings and quaint cafes and the Musee Picasso, and pass through an arch notifying you that you are entering the city of the dead. The very walls of the corridors and entire rooms are constructed of stacks and stacks of bones, and you wander through the tunnels lined with skulls peering at you from generations past. And you pray not only that you won’t be joining their ranks any time soon, but also that the lights don’t go out.
We paused with our teenagers once that trip and I took the opportunity for a teachable moment. While studying a wall of bones and skulls, I suddenly told them to be quiet, to listen.
As they strained their ears, I whispered–as gently, as ethereally, as I could–carpe diem. Carpe diem! Seize the day…
They weren’t amused. Not then, anyway. But it is the real, Lenten-inspired lesson of these places filled with bones. Your time is limited, and one day, without fail, this is what awaits you. Use your time, don’t just exist.
Note to self: next time I find myself with kids, grandkids, friends, family, etc. in a chapel or city of bones, try the “I see dead people” line.