I am actually okay with death. By death I mean, of course, Death…not death. In fact, the absence of any conviction regarding the existence of an afterlife has freed me up to fully appreciate Mother Nature’s warped sense of humor, as she seeds the universe with our molecules to produce the next generation of stars and aardvarks, sequoias and spores, saints and Republicans. On the other hand, becoming a parent has made death all the more terrorizing. Though I have always admired Ayelet Waldman’s sentiments, they also somewhat perplex me. If I imagine the film of my life, my husband’s death would be followed a period of muted colors which would, over time, return to their former brilliance. The death of one of my children would mark the place where the film suddenly becomes black and white, and there would never be color again.
But the abstract concept of Death doesn’t freak me out. I don’t get the heebies at the cemetary, have any particular aversion to blood and gore, and the few times I have seen bodies have been struck more with a clinical fascination than a sense of horror. So when I headed to the Valnerina to see the mummies in the 12th century church of Santo Stefano–now the crypt of the 15th century church built on top of the original–that I had been hearing about for years, it was with the lighthearted mood of adventure (and playing hooky from the office).
As I neared Ferentillo, however, the fluffy white clouds overhead were suddenly run out of town by a black, ominous storm front. The temperature plunged several degrees in a matter of minutes, daylight faded, and the dramatic craggy peaks which loom over the town on all sides began to seem ominuous and windswept in a way that made me think of Jane Eyre and crazy ex-wives locked in attics. By the time I had parked, rain was pelting the tiny village pitilessly and the rolling thunder had become deafening. I ran to the entrance of the crypt, which is now a museum, and darted past the massive wooden door into the vaulted stone entry just as lightening struck close by and its blinding flash lit up this welcoming inscription:
Oggi a me, domani a te.
Io fui quel che tu sei
tu sarai quel che io sono.
Pensa mortal che il tuo fine è questo,
e pensa pur che ciò sarà ben presto.
Today me, tomorrow you.
I was what you are
and you will be what I am.
Consider, mortal, that your end is this
and consider also that it will be quite soon.
When the cheerful young guide suddenly popped out from around the corner to sell me our tickets and take us through the crypt, she pretty much scared the bejeezus out of me. My nine year old son was, by this time, trembling like a Labrador puppy at the prospect of 1) seeing mummies and 2) seeing his otherwise unflappable mother visibly rattled, so we stepped inside.
The crypt-turned-museum is quite small and there are probably no more than twenty mummies on display, so the visit didn’t take long. Our guide explained how the combination of a microfungus and mineral salts in the soil and a unique air flow (there are openings along one wall where the cold storm air was gusting in) resulted in the natural mummification of many of the bodies buried here over the centuries. The mummified remains were discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, when a Napoleanic edict ordered the emptying of crypts and the trasfer of remains to cemetaries outside of the town walls. This being the Valnerina—an impenetrable area which held out against Christianity, Napoleon, and a united Italy long after the rest of Umbria—they continued to inter their dead here until 1871, when the last coffin was placed in the crypt (it’s still on display, though the surviving relatives have forbidden its opening).
Some of the most intact of these mummified corpses are displayed behind glass, and the guide’s chirpy commentary—with gruesome backstories of torture and hangings (You can still see where his neck is broken!), disease and plague (Notice how the sores are still visible on her skin!), human tragedy (The baby looks as if he is merely sleeping!), and grim details (If you step closely enough you can see the whiskers, teeth, eyeballs, and hair!)—was both surreal and compelling in a Tim Burton-esque sort of way. Add to this the muffled sound of thunder and flashes of lightening that periodically made the lights flicker, and you pretty much had the making of a nine-year-old boy’s perfect excursion.
Is it macabre? Sure, but in a fascinating way. Unlike the Egyptian mummies we are so used to viewing, these are recent enough that the details surrounding their lives and deaths resonate more and make them more human and less monstrous curiosities. Their stories are told matter-of-factly, yet with great decorum and respect. Death is, after all, a part of life.
That said, is it a little spooky? You bet.