City of death

Whilst exploring Sicily we went to the cemetery at Pozzallo to lay flowers for relatives. I had just assumed it would look rather like a British cemetery, and was intrigued to find out that it was much more akin to an ancient Roman burial ground. There wasn't a patch of grass to be seen, but (in the richer areas) a whole series of mausoleums with varying degrees of elaborate detail some of which had to be seen to be believed. I'm told that some families spend more on their tombs than on their houses.
These works of art are laid out in Roman grid-style, roads lined with houses for the dead, at once beautiful and boastful - declarations of the status and grandeur of both the ancestors and their survivors. Many are heavily influenced in their design by classical architecture, and given that each contain altars (with statues of the Virgin, various saints etc.) along with the names and icons of the lost generations, and receptacles for the offerings of flowers, these are each fundamentally pagan temples to the lares given a patina of Catholicism... which itself is only a few steps away from the ancient roots it has tried so hard to deny ~ like a teenager who becomes ever more like its resented parents, the more desperately it tries to make a stand against them.
Sicily has been invaded a dozen times over and the mixture of historical architectural styles can be seen in the place of the dead. Spires, domes, columns, and cubes abound. Weeping angels watch from every architrave, alongside figures who never did have wings.
The less well-heeled sections involve large banks of marble-clad niches in which bodies are placed and sealed in with name plaques that also bear the photographs of the people entombed there. The plaques are equipped with small vases where mourners may leave their flowers, and some also with little lights to glow like candles (presumably in generations prior to the popularisation of electricity these really would have been candle sconces). Some of these collecting places are subsidised by trade unions, paid into over a lifetime of work, so that there are rows of deceased sailors in one area, old farm labourers in another etc.
For me British cemeteries, those attached to churches at least (hard to feel any nostalgia about those council run depositories for used up tax payers) are redolent with echoes of M R James, and I wouldn't change them at all. Yet it is fascinating to see another way of honouring the dead - and far more focus given to them than the sedate practices of low church Protestantism.


Popular posts from this blog

Introducing paganism

Soul Food

Ave Lupercalia