I did not imagine, when my husband, Alfredo took this picture of me, some 9 yrs ago, that I would one day, use it here, in this way. This image was shot in the courtyard of the Museo di San Martino in Napoli. It is located at the summit of the city and offers a fantastic bird’s eye view of the sprawling city below. Adjacent to the 14th Century Carthusian monastery’s church, is the Chiostro dei Procuratori- the smaller of the monastery’s two cloisters. Amidst the incredible display of Neapolitan artistry, great paintings and marble statues, these somewhat spooky skulls, also sculpted in marble, were apparently mounted on the balustrade as a light-hearted reminder to the monks of their own mortality!
I was simply fooling around then, actively encouraged by Alfredo, but I didn’t think I’d lose him so suddenly within just a couple of years, myself. I remember how he regularly went to “visit” and to “talk to” his mother at the cemetery, after her untimely demise in 2007. Just a year later, his own body was interred into the same space, to accompany his “mamma”, almost as if that was how it was destined to be. Its hard not to imagine mother and son locked in a stream of continuous conversations even now. Although I’m not by their graveside in person today, I have done the unthinkable- taken pictures of my son and myself at the cemetery, so it gets easier to revisit, visually, sitting several oceans and continents away, in India.
Today, happens to be the Day of the Dead in Italy- Il Giorno dei Morti, (All Souls Day), also simply called “i Morti”. While 1st Nov is observed as Ognissanti (All Saints Day), 2nd Nov, is dedicated to the dear departed. Unlike Ognisanti, which is both a Catholic Feast day and national holiday in Italy, the Day of the Dead isn’t. Yet, in many ways this popular festival is more deeply felt than All Saints Day, having roots in folk tradition reaching further back than Christianity. Folk and pagan tradition have long honoured the dead at this time of year, as autumn was considered the counterpoint to spring and its symbol of rebirth.
Even today, Italians have a strong connection with their deceased, and many Italians make weekly visits to the local cemetery to honour their departed family members. This culture of remembrance comes to the fore on November 2nd, as cemeteries across Italy are crowded with visitors and many families make more-or-less symbolic welcoming gestures to the dead who are believed to visit their living loved ones on that day. As it turns out, there are elaborate rituals practiced across Italy on this day. From the regions of the north, where guiding lamps and fires are left lit through the night and a place set at the dinner table, to Sicily in the far south, where the departed leave gifts hidden around the house during the night for good children to find in the morning, the Day of the Dead is when religious and pagan beliefs meld into a celebration of family and tradition.
It’s amazing how so many cultures have evolved to accept death in a celebratory spirit. There’s perhaps no other way to honour the departed souls we hold so dear than to celebrate their memories joyfully. To remember all the energy and vitality they brought to the world up until that moment when they mysteriously stopped breathing. Sad, as it often is to realise that you will never hold someone’s hand again, feel the warmth of their being, the assurance they will walk through the door with their big smile and roaring laughter, its still possible to pass those memories on. Its possible to tell your children and theirs, that, their parent or grand parent was someone truly incredible. Often when the lump in the throat recedes, it leaves a lingering smile on the lips with haunting memories of times well spent, cherished moments that not even death can steal.