Close to the Bone in a Roman Crypt

Bones 1 by chrisholtphotos.comA belief in hell and the knowledge that every ambition is doomed to frustration at the hands of a skeleton have never prevented the majority of human beings from behaving as though death were no more than an unfounded rumor.Aldous Huxley, Variations on a Baroque Tomb

I’ve been thinking about bones this week, due to an onset of arthritis in my back and the pain of my own bloody bones. Nothing like back pain to make one conscious of the march of time. Of course there’s no marching going on, more like a bending at the knees. I should offer supplication to the Goddess of Arthritis, the Greek moon goddess, Selene. Is that obscure? Ok, the reference is to selenium, a mineral known to be helpful to bone health.

It is with no minor irony that I note my wife Kerry collects bones. In fact, I may end up on a shelf or two someday myself, my femurs turned over once a quarter to keep me on my toes, so to to speak.

On a few occasions she’s had me out in the bush as her adhoc anthropologist, picking up bones and feeling shivers running down my spine at the thought of some unknown watchers observing me as I dust bits of fur from an encrusted specimen and drop it into a shopping bag. God knows what parasites linger here? Please, no bag-lady jokes.

My collector-spouse has decorated our home with an assortment of found vertebrae of elk and whale, the skulls of coyote, long horn and mountain lion, and a few bird legs. There are also the leg bones of a deer and some other mystery creature lying in a corner of our living room, a sculptural homage to these once running, jumping beasts.

These bleached white remains are scattered throughout our home as reminders of the passing of time, like the pictures of our long-gone relatives that adorn our walls and shelves, looking out at us with knowing gazes that say, “We’ll see you in good time.”
Bones 2 by
These bones speak in a language of persistence, though. They are less mortal than we, something that only the flesh can aspire to. I wonder at Kerry’s fascination with the remnants of death, at these structural undergarments of the flesh. What is held in her mind by these bones now? Are they some metaphor, some allusion to a dance only a poet can see? Maybe the monks know something?

In 1631 Cardinal Antonio Barberini developed a crypt in Rome, the Cimitero dei Cappuccini, where the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars who died between 1528 and 1870 have been sculpted into elaborate ornamentation to humorously and blatantly remind us of our mortality.

Given the art of bones in our home, is it no wonder Kerry insists, on our recent visit to Rome, that we visit this church crypt to stand dumbfounded before of the remains of thousands of dead monks.

This crypt is beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione. It’s here, amongst the bones of their brothers, that the Capuchin monks would come to pray and reflect upon their flesh before to heading off for bed. The Cardinal’s tomb reads, “Here lies dust and ashes, nothing else.” I guess he preempted their art somewhat; he certainly had the last laugh.

While I peruse  the narrow hall in front of these displays, I am struck with the humour of the Capuchins’ message. I also feel a chill running across my skin. (Note how I avoided saying “bones”).  
Capuchin 1 by
It is absolutely inconceivable that one could design an art installation such as this today, though this might be a better use of bones than burying them in the earth, unseen and lost to time.

There are few tourists in the crypt even though admission is by donation. Only one other couple wanders through the crypt with us, their nervous giggles betraying a shared understanding as we pass from room to room, each one dominated by a type of bone: skulls, femurs, vertebrae.

One wonders how the resurrection will go for these monks. Will they argue about whose fibula is whose? “Hey asshole, that’s my pelvis not yours, go steal someone else’s coccyx, will you…”

A few full skeletons are already dressed in Capuchin robes, ready for the trip. They are positioned in the timeless lounging of death as a warning to us that ”time is short” – either that or “lounging is forever”. Or maybe being a couch potato only feels like an eternity? One of these monks is mummified, his flesh pulled taut like an aging Hollywood star – Joan Rivers tight – as though he had his twentieth plastic surgery.

His gruesome smile is a warning, not a joke: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”

We examine one sCapuchin Skeletons by chrisholtphotos.comkeleton closely. Its skinny hands clasp upon its breast and two lusterless tufts of hair stick to the skull. Crisp dead eyes watch from deep sockets and the lips shrivel away from yellow teeth. The skeleton draws us down through the circling years. There is nothing left to say. He has the last dreadful laugh.

I didn’t write about this ossuary to be morbid, but as a reflection on time and a respect for the time we need to have. The Huxley quote at the beginning of my post is yet another example of the necessity of recognizing that each moment is a gift worthy of the utmost enjoyment. What may seem so important in the here and now will surely pass.

I started this post with my fascination at Kerry’s interest in bones and I’ll share her words on the subject from her blog Black Dot Diary. “I know some people find bones gruesome, but I am drawn to the purity of bone once the flesh is gone. The artistry of nature. Bones are what define us and gives us structure. Without our bones, we would be nothing solid. When I touch a beautiful bleached bone, I like to think I am touching something closer to the truth.”

Well, there’s truth in them old bones, for sure. With one look at the Capuchins’ bones, you get it — and then spend the rest of your life trying to forget it.

Photo Credits

All Photos © chrisholtphotos

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  1. avatarGlenn Slavens says

    Having just seen Alice In Chains at The Orpheum this last week, the lyrics from their song, “Them Bones,” have been stuck in my head.

    “I Feel So Alone
    Gonna End Up A Big Ole Pile A Them Bones.”

    Hauntingly, thoughts of my own morality have been persistent in my mind. It is of no surprise that I’ve been drawn to Chris’ article; a humorous piece that stimulates careful consideration about what it mean to be human. Magical yet finite.

    Many questions prevail over answers. What is our purpose? What can I do to leave an impression to let the world know that I not only existed, but lived? Is this but one chapter in a great epic? Does it even matter? Yes, it does.

  2. avatarCatherine Murphy says

    Great article Chris! I find bones intriguing as well although I don’t collect them. I think they give us an appreciation of the past but more so of the present… the here and now.
    The crypt photo is fascinating.

  3. avatar says

    Chris – really enjoyed this piece and the unusual topic of bones. Unlike Kerry, I don’t like bones or feathers or hair or anything that once used to be part of a living creature that no longer lives. I guess I just can’t face the reality.

    p.s. I wondered if perhaps you and Kerry were married or if there were just a lot of people out West who had parrots as pets!

  4. avatarMaggie says

    This is such a beautiful and thoughtful piece. Like you, I share the “arthritic bones” that rattle and complain on steep stairs and during deep knee bends. But you’ve made me regard those bones differently. Are they asking me to touch my truth? It’s good to think about my former life training as a dancer, rather than whining about today’s aches.

    Thanks for that!


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