Death fascinates me. I find beauty in its grit and its finality, the abandonment that it subjects the living to, the silent vacuum in which it holds the living hostage for weeks, months, years, a lifetime. Death, as a concept--not as an experience--intrigues me. I admire the rituals that accompany death. The recitations, the chanting, the dismemberment, the cremation, the giving the body to birds of prey, the interment, the embalming.
When my daughter was a little girl I took her to Palermo, Italy. I don’t remember the churches or the parks or the food or the music. What remains from this trip is the indelible memory of the basement of the Capuchin monastery where over 8000 mummified human beings (mostly monks and a few laymen) are propped up against the walls. They have been dead for hundreds of years, but they are also alive inasmuch as they are still rotting. A relentless decomposition process still peels skin off bones and hollows out faces, leaving teeth exposed in grotesque grimaces.
I remember walking down the catacombs holding my daughter’s hand. She was almost as enthralled as I was by the display of dead monks in full religious attire and hooded robes, seemingly, looking down at us. We reached a fork in the catacombs, my daughter went one way and I the other. And there it was: an army of dead babies, their faces nothing more than crinkled skin and gaping mouths. There was a special room for two year-old Rosalia Lombardo whose tiny body was displayed inside a glass coffin. She is one of the best preserved mummies in the catacombs, has eyelashes, hair and resembles a life-size doll. I stared at her, an undead little girl looked back. And then it hit me. Because I had been distracted looking at a dead girl, I had lost my daughter in the necropolis. Somewhere surrounded by dead people was my daughter, my flesh and bone, the only thing I had given life to. Panic settled across my face. I rushed through a labyrinth of death calling her name out, passed hundreds of disembodied cadavers stuffed with hay that poked through their necks and fell out of orifices, until I found her. She wasn’t afraid or spooked or put face-to-face with her own mortality. Like the child she was, I found her untouched by sadness or grief, still incapable of comprehending loss. She was bored, she told me, but mainly, she was hungry.
Almost twenty years later, while visiting Greece, I came across more dead monks. It was the Great Meteoron monastery, also known as, the monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ, the highest and oldest of the six Meteora monasteries, established around 1340 by St. Athanasios Meteorites. Some people believe that an eagle carried his body up the highest pinnacle - which he named Megalo Meteoro ("Great Place Suspended in the Air"), where he initially built a small church that grew over the years into the marvel it is today. There are lovely sites in and out of the monastic complex, but what I found most memorable was the sacristy, a place where skulls and bones of previous residents are neatly stacked on shelves. Just skulls, teeth and bones. They are dead. Unlike the undead disembodied mummies of Palermo, these monks are irrefutably dead.
I’m no longer holding my daughter’s hand. She is now a married woman, living her own life, thousands of miles away from me. I’m no longer marching through the dead looking for her. Twenty years later, I know exactly where she is. But there was this moment in the sacristy where I remembered losing sight of my little girl and the panic that ensued in the catacombs in Palermo, I looked into the eye sockets on the skulls on the shelves, I called her name out, and wondered if she was hungry.