Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 103, entry Nov 2003, rev. Nov 2010    

ulture of Death

A memento mori stylized skull on the premises of the church of Purgatorio dell'Arco

Yesterday was All Souls' Day, when many Roman Catholics remember their departed loved ones. In Naples, this is an important day and one that many families spend entirely at the cemetery, placing flowers and, in general, just hanging out. 

Though it is not necessarily a melancholy occasion, it does reflect the somewhat obsessive relationship that Neapolitans have with this last great rite of passage. There is no pretense at all, as there is, elsewhere, of being a "death-defying" culture, one in which public markers of grief such as black armbands and graveside visits are avoided. Here, such reminders are unselfconsciously everywhere. And one has only to walk into some of the older churches in town to find ornate examples of the so-called memento mori (Latin for "remember that you must die"); typically, these are stylized carvings of human skulls. The Museum of San Martino (an ex-monastery) has a courtyard lined with them, and the Church of Purgatorio ad Arco features them prominently on the façade. If carvings are not enough, there are crypts and catacombs where you can see the real thing. (See The Fontanelle Cemetery.)

Yet, in spite of this commitment to the traditional and totally serious view of death, there is some bizarre competition never far below the surface. At least that is my impression when I read in the local papers of two undertakers getting into a fist-fight on the street over which one of them is going to take custody of the deceased. The two of them are waiting outside the church for the funeral service to end, each one apparently under the impression that he has the exclusive right to take the coffin to the cemetery. Then, they start to haggle and push and shove each other in an attempt to wrest the Dearly Departed into their respective hearses, all in the presence of mourners, who actually take time out from their grief to get their licks in on one side or the other.

In Naples it is still possible to see large coach/hearses, huge glass and gold affairs from another century, drawn by as many as eight horses. Some people save their money so they can blow it all on going out in style, keeping the "bella figura" —a strange phrase meaning anything from "looking good" to "keeping up a front"— keeping that "bella figura" right to the end, indeed, well past the end. I once saw one of these coaches trying to turn into a small side street of the Spanish Quarter off the main thoroughfare, via Toledo, downtown. These side streets are narrow, generally congested and not amenable to passage by anything less maneuverable than an anorexic bicycle; yet, the coachman turned in, on his way to a church where a service was being held, so he could give that last big important ride to someone who had saved up a small fortune over many years just for this special occasion. As the horses ably swung into their tight turn, one of the extravagant gilt curlicues sticking out from the coach snagged on the roof of a small, prefabricated newsstand. The vendor had set it up without too much regard for whether or not he might be a bit too close to the corner of the sidestreet. The coach tore the roof of the newsstand off and the noise startled the horses; they bolted up the alley, dragging half of this poor man's business behind them all the way to the church. 

The large main cemetery in Naples is worth a visit if only to see the bizarre ends which some people go to in order to cement themselves in place for posterity —enormous tombs, pharoahonically silly ones, encrusted with enough kitsch ornamentation to land you in whatever part of the afterlife is reserved for good people with bad taste. 

The strangest thing I have seen so far at the cemetery is the "flower people". They earn a pretty good living by prowling around the crypts waiting for funeral processions to arrive. Generally, at around the same time, a flower truck will roll up and unload onto the ground near the burial site or tomb all the flowers that people have ordered for the service. A good funeral will wind up with dozens of floral wreaths and displays, representing a considerable amount of money. If, however, you want to grab the flowers that you ordered and place them where you want at the service, you must be there the second the flowers are unloaded, or you will never get them. The minute the flowers hit the ground, they are overrun by the "flower people". They will make off with everything in a matter of seconds and even get in some heated discussions of the "Hey, I saw those first" type. No fisticuffs, however; you don't want to damage the flowers. The flower people take their booty, all still fresh and beautiful, back outside the cemetery to the main gate and sell them to mourners who are on their way in. 

Their view is, I suppose, "So what's the big deal? It's only death." And it's even good for a laugh, sometimes. Maybe that's not so bad. 

And finally

One of those things that seem to happen only in films about Naples actually happened yesterday. Fortunato Iorio is 30 years old, the father of three children and has been unemployed for months. In January he started underscoring his plight by displaying himself dressed in full funereal garb, laid out in a coffin, and surrounded by flowers, his faithful dog, and by weeping "mourners" —his friends and relatives sympathetic to his situation. He lies there and they wail and keen slogans such as "He might as well be dead without a job". Fortunato has even founded an organization called Principle and Dignity, dedicated to helping those in his same situation. 

He was on display again yesterday in downtown Naples, being carried along, dead as a live doornail, by his pallbearer pals when they ran into a real funeral procession. Fortunato did the right thing, of course, which was to sit upright and make a respectful genuflection in the direction of the real thing, after which he died back down again. The incident was not reported as having caused any harsh words to pass from the direction of the truly bereft. That may be, as I note above, due to the often less-than-serious view of death in Naples. There is often an air of perfunctory tragedy about it.

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