|Rome's Day for the Dead|
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, NOV. 4, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The raucous, pleasure-loving Romans become somber and contemplative once a year. Autumn's shorter days and overcast skies set the stage for Rome's solemn commemoration of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.
Unlike America, where Halloween festivities with predominantly pagan imagery tend to overshadow the Christian feasts, Italy basically ignores Halloween and celebrates All Saints' Day as a national holiday. This feast opens a week when every city, town or village takes time out to remember the dead. The great cemeteries of Rome -- Campo Verano and Prima Porta -- even add special bus services so that every Roman can go and visit loved ones.
A heartening scene in this city of self-absorption is to hear a fashionable, jet-setting young Roman beg off an outing with friends to accompany his family to the cemetery to visit his grandparents' tombs. Here, death isn't hidden away or viewed with ghoulish amusement; the memory of departed loved ones is a cherished part of family life.
Once there, they bring flowers (Roman florists have capped prices this year to avoid excessive gouging) and some have a little graveyard picnic in accord with the pre-Christian Roman traditions of the "refrigerium." This was a meal at the tomb of an ancestor, and Romans always remembered to pour a little milk or wine into the grave so that the dead would be able to celebrate as well.
The early Christians also celebrated the dead through ritual meals at the catacombs, the most famous site being the room in the catacombs of St. Sebastian used for repasts commemorating Saints Peter and Paul.
In the immense Campo Verano Cemetery on the southeast side of the city, more than 300 consecrated altars permit Masses all day for the dead. George Weigel, in his "Letters to a Young Catholic," offers a moving reflection in the mausoleum of the North American College near the tomb of a young seminarian.
In Roman parish life, remembering the dead is not only limited to these few days of jaunts and dining. The most common act of penance is to pray for souls in purgatory while parishes hold daily Masses for the souls of the deceased of the neighborhood, praying each day for a different street of the parish.
Italy being the culinary country that it is, also produces a special sweet for this period, the "ossa dei morti" a bone-shaped, bone-dry cookie.
Many sites in the city encourage meditation on mortality. Most famous is the Capuchin crypt decorated over the course of the 18th century with the bones of monks who had once been buried there.
The Church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte, belonging to the confraternity that oversaw the collection and burial of the unclaimed dead, has a similar crypt. Members dedicated themselves year-round to praying the Office of the Dead. This practice gained such popularity that they were able to build a church on the ritzy Via Giulia with a travertine facade complete with winged skulls, flying hourglasses and a skeleton bearing a scroll reading "hodie mihi, cras tibi" which translates "today me, tomorrow you."
This year, I thought I would visit another site connected with this solemn time of year, the Purgatory Museum. This museum -- a single display case -- is housed in the sacristy of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage. This unusual church sports a unique, elaborate French gothic facade along the Tiber.
This site belonged to Father Vittore Jouet, a French priest, and a number of faithful from the Prati quarter of Rome who erected a little chapel to offer prayers for the dead. In 1897, a fire broke out in the chapel and all present saw what appeared to be a suffering face by the altar through the flames. Even after the fire was extinguished, the image remained, and many believe it to be the visage of a soul suffering in purgatory.
Many people contributed to the building of the church which would host this image, today kept under lock and key outside the sacristy on the right transept of the church. Father Jouet, who personally donated a great deal toward the building of this church, chose the gothic design to remind him of his beloved France.
Father Jouet then traveled extensively around Europe looking for other evidence of suffering souls in purgatory and brought his findings back to the little museum in the Sacred Heart church.
The museum mostly contains objects bearing burnt fingerprints of the dead beseeching the living for prayers. One glass frame contained a nightcap, belonging to a certain Louis le Senechal, with the five fingerprints of his deceased wife around the crown.
Whether or not one chooses to believe that these ghostly fingerprints were actually impressed by the hands of the dead is secondary, the point of the museum being to remind the faithful of the necessity of prayers for the dead and our own eventual need for those same prayers one day.
So while the Americans were lining up to vote on Tuesday, the Italians were fervently praying for the souls of their beloved departed. Reminders both of the passing nature of all things in this world.