Category Archives: Church burial

People buried in chapels, churches, cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship.

Cemetery of the Week #173: the Crypt of Our Lady of the Angels

 

The Cathedral Mausoleum at Our Lady of the Angels
Also known as the Crypt of the LA Cathedral or the Saint Vibiana Chapel Mausoleum
Address: 555 West Temple Street, Los Angeles, California 90012
Phone: 213-680-5200
Dedicated: September 2002
Number interred: 395, according to Findagrave

Note: the Cathedral Mausoleum remains closed at the moment, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Please check the Cathedral’s website or call before you visit to make sure it’s reopened.

In 1996, the Diocese of Los Angeles chose a downtown parking lot overlooking the Hollywood Freeway as the site of its new cathedral. Named for the city’s namesake, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated on September 2, 2002. It serves as the mother church to approximately five million professed Catholics in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Sealed into the floor around the altar are 26 relics, including Saints Benedict, Catherine of Sienna, Charles Lwanga, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Francis of Assisi, Gregory the Great, John Neumann, Martin de Porres, Patrick of Ireland, Rose of Lima, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American saint), and Junipero Serra, who founded the Spanish missions in California in the 18th century.

In the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs a reliquary with a fragment of the cloak worn by Saint Juan Diego that was miraculously stamped with Mary’s image when she visited him. The postage stamp-sized relic may be the only one of its kind in the United States. It was given by the archbishop of Mexico City to the archbishop of Los Angeles in 1941.

In the Chapel of Saint Vibiana, in the crypt below the church, rest the bones of a third-century Christian martyr whose grave was discovered in the Pretestato Catacombs near Rome’s Appian Way in December 1853. The original grave was sealed with a marble tablet which was marked with a laurel wreath, which indicated she was a martyr for her faith. Also in the alcove was a rose-colored vial, believed to contain dried blood. Despite a lack of history or miracles, Pope Pius IX canonized her as a Roman-era Virgin in 1854.

Vibiana’s bones were encased in a wax effigy. Bishop Thaddeus Amat, charged with overseeing all of California south of Monterey, took her relics on an eight-month tour before they arrived in Santa Barbara. Sometime in the 1860s, her reliquary was installed in Los Angeles. The Italian Baroque cathedral of Saint Vibiana was dedicated in her name in 1871.

In the 1950s, the Vatican dropped Vibiana’s feast day from the liturgical calendar for lack of historical information. In 1976, her relics were removed from public view and entombed in a marble sarcophagus. In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake caused damage to her cathedral and the diocese of LA took the opportunity to build Our Lady of the Angels. Vibiana’s, which had been named a City Landmark in 1963, was deconsecrated and is now available for rent as a wedding venue.

The construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was overseen by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, LA’s first native Angeleno archbishop, who was made a cardinal in 1991. A burial place is reserved for him in the crypt.

The Crypt Mausoleum of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels lies one floor beneath the cathedral itself. It can be reached via the stairway or elevators at the rear of the Cathedral Church. The mausoleum is surprisingly large, containing some 1300 interment “crypts” and 5000 cremation niches, most of them empty at this time. Its walls are faced with polished Spanish limestone, lit by alabaster sconces.

It features 16 large baroque revival stained glass windows and 9 lunettes, brought from the original St. Vibiana Cathedral. The windows were created by the Franz Mayer Company in Munich in the early 1920s and restored by Judson Studios before being placed in the crypt. Since they are underground, they are lit from behind.

In the crypt stands a chapel dedicated to St. Vibiana. The altar was refashioned from the marble altar of her cathedral. The brightly painted stations of the cross came from St. Basil Church in LA. A marble sarcophagus contains Vibiana’s bones, still in their wax effigy. A replica of the plaque that marked her original grave hangs nearby, inscribed “To the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana.” She remains the patron saint of Los Angeles.

Buried in the Bishops’ Crypt are Thaddeus Amat y Brusi (the first Bishop of Los Angeles, who brought Vibiana’s relics to LA), John Cantwell (the first Archbishop of Los Angeles), Bishop Thomas James Conaty (who oversaw the restoration of the California missions in the early 20th century), Bishop Carl Anthony Fisher (the first Black bishop on the West Coast), James Francis McIntyre (the controversial second Archbishop of Los Angeles, who became a cardinal), Bishop Juan Alfredo Arzube (born in Ecuador), and John J. Ward (who served in the Vatican II discussions). Several of them had been buried at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral before being reinterred here.

Other bishops have cenotaphs to their memories, including Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, who was sent to Northern California during the Gold Rush. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery Mausoleum in Colma, California, south of San Francisco.

The most famous person buried in the Crypt Mausoleum is actor Gregory Peck, best remembered for playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award. Peck was nominated five times for the Oscar and received the Academy’s humanitarian award in 1968. He served as president of the Motion Picture Academy and was active in the American Cancer Society, National Endowment for the Arts, and many other causes. He died in his sleep in 2003. He’s buried in the crypt beside his wife, philanthropist Veronique Peck, who followed him in 2012. Their epitaph crosses the front of both grave plaques. His says, “Together” and hers “Forever.”

Actress Joan Marlowe (born Gisela Goetten) was billed by Warner Bros. as “the most beautiful girl on the screen.” She appeared in the Rin Tin Tin movies, acted opposite John Barrymore in “Don Juan,” and played a recurring role in the “Our Gang” shorts as the teacher Miss Crabtree. She also appeared in the first Laurel and Hardy movie, “Pardon Us.” After she married in 1933, she stopped acting in films. Initially buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, she was moved to the LA Cathedral crypt and interred behind the epitaph, “Help thy brother’s boat across and Lo! Thine own has reached the shore.”

Actress Helen Wagner was best known for playing Nancy Hughes in the soap opera “As the World Turns.” She spoke the first line on the show in 1956 and continued playing the part until a month before her death in 2010. She’s credited in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest-playing of a single role. Her husband, producer Robert Wiley, is also buried in the Cathedral Mausoleum.

Buried near the papal cross beneath the cathedral’s altar is Bernardine Murphy Donohue, who was rewarded for her Catholic philanthropy by being made a papal countess by Pope John XXIII. After her death, her family’s mansion was donated to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as a retreat house.

Useful Links:
Map to the cathedral: https://catholiccm.org/cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels-mausoleum
The Cathedral Mausoleum: http://www.olacathedral.org/cathedral/mausoleum/about1.html
The Cathedral homepage: http://www.olacathedral.org/
LA Time article “The Crypts that Keep on Giving”: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-feb-08-mn-26916-story.html
Findagrave: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1543836/cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels

My reviews of books related to this cemetery:

Laid to Rest in California: https://cemeterytravel.com/2011/05/05/cemeteries-paparazzi-style/

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels guidebook: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3908630237

Other graveyards of the Hollywood stars on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #5: Hollywood Forever

Cemetery of the Week #14: the Original Forest Lawn

Cemetery of the Week #40: Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #45: Hillside Memorial Park

Cemetery of the Week #51: Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #110: Holy Cross Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #168: the New Haven Crypt

IMG_0181The New Haven Crypt
Center Church on the Green
250 Temple Street
New Haven, Connecticut 06511
Founded: late 1600s
Closed: 1821
Size: small
Number of interments: an estimated 1,000 people are buried here
Tours: can be scheduled at (203) 787-0121.

Originally people in New Haven, Connecticut were buried in the green in the center of town. The space started to be used as a burial ground by settlers of the New Haven Colony in the 1600s. Estimates range from 5-10,000 people were buried there before 1821, when the Grove Street Cemetery opened nearby.  At that point, headstones were moved to the new cemetery, but the bodies were left in place below the sod in the Green.

The original First Church of Christ in New Haven was built on a corner of the Green in 1639.  It was rebuilt twice in the same place, but when the congregation voted to expand their meeting house, there was no open space on the Green.  Instead, they decided to build on pilings above part of the graveyard on the Green. Construction of Center Church began in 1812 and was completed in 1814.

IMG_0137The graves beneath the church were left in their original places and enclosed in what’s called a crypt, even though it stands at ground level.  The surviving stones date from 1687 to 1812 and have been called the “last remaining evidence on the New Haven Green of the first colonists who settled here to establish a new life in America.”

IMG_0132An estimated 1000 people (or perhaps more) are buried beneath the church. Plaques inside the church’s foyer list names and death dates of people known to be buried in the crypt. In those days, it was common for a family to reuse the same name for a child over and over in the same generation until one of them finally survived to adulthood.

The first map of the crypt was made by Henry Trowbridge in 1880. 139 gravestones survive inside the crypt, some of which have been rendered illegible by time. The oldest stone marks the grave of Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge, who died in 1687.

Originally the floor of the crypt was dirt, which was replaced by concrete as a way to control the damp. In 1985, they (who?) realized that the concrete was too successful in trapping moisture beneath it. The gravestones were acting as wicks, pulling the moisture upward, which was leading to degradation of the stone.  In 1990, the concrete was broken up and removed by being passed though the little windows to the Green outside. Walkways of unmortared bricks were laid between the stones, allowing them to breathe.

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The ceiling is low down there. At one point there was talk of lowering the floor so there would be more room, but the bodies are not actually buried very deeply.  In the end, the decision was made to leave the skeletons in place. The crypt is plenty bright enough, but it did make me feel slightly claustrophobic when all our tour group gathered in one area.

Among those buried here include Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Margaret; the family of President Rutherford B. Hayes; Reverend James Pierpont, a founder of Yale College, and many more. One of the stones remembers Sarah Whiting, “the painful mother of eight children, of whom six survive.” When she died in 1726, she was called “fruitful, virtuous, and weary.”

The New Haven Crypt Association preserves the site, trains volunteers as tour guides, and offers public tours most Saturdays from April to October from 11 am to 1 pm.

Outside the church is a cenotaph in honor of Theophilus Eaton, first governor of the New Haven Colony, who served for 19 years. He was also a founder of the First Church of Christ, from which Center Church derived, and is buried beneath the church’s foundation. The large marble plaque was placed on the church by the city when the gravestones were removed from the Green.

IMG_0179In what’s left of the churchyard, there are also plaques for General Edward Whalley and Goffe, two “regicides” who fled to New Haven to escape execution. Whalley and William Goffe signed the death warrant for King Charles I during the English Civil War. A tall monument remembers John Dixwell, one of the Regicide Judges, who settled in New Haven in 1665 under an assumed name.

Useful links:

A history of the Crypt on the Center Church site: http://centerchurchonthegreen.org/history/crypt/

Tales from the Crypt: https://ctcryptkeeper.wordpress.com/

Facebook page of the New Haven Crypt Association: https://www.facebook.com/newhavencrypt/

The Findagrave page: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1069578/center-church-on-the-green-churchyard

I meant to say that I know of at least one other church built above an earlier graveyard in the US. The graveyard where Edgar Allan Poe is buried in Baltimore has a church up on piers above the graves:  https://cemeterytravel.com/2013/10/09/cemetery-of-the-week-110-westminster-hall-burying-ground/

Cemetery of the Week #151: The French Pantheon

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All photos taken by Loren Rhoads in 2016.

The Pantheon
Place du Pantheon
75005 Paris, France
Telephone: 01 44 32 18 00
Pantheonizations began: 1791
Number of interments:
Open: Every day, except January 1, May 1, and December 25
Homepage: http://www.monuments-nationaux.fr

In 451, Attila the Hun threatened the Roman settlement called Lutecia, where Paris now stands. A shepherdess named Genevieve rallied the people to pray for deliverance. When the Huns broke off the siege, Genevieve was proclaimed a savior.

After she died in 502, a small oratory was built over her grave. This was followed in 508 by a church, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, built by Clovis, King of the Franks.  Three years later he was buried in it. After his wife (who became Saint Clotilde) joined him there in 545, the church was renamed in honor of Saint Genevieve, who became the patron of Paris.

In times of trouble, Genevieve’s relics were carried through the city streets. In 1754, Louis XV credited Genevieve with helping him recover from a grave illness and funded renovation of the church. Jacques-Germain Soufflot wanted the new church to rival St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London.

Foundation work began in 1757, but the hill below was like swiss cheese, so it needed a lot of shoring up. While the crypt was completed in 1763, the cornerstone wasn’t laid until September the following year.

The church was completed by 1790, when the Marquis de Villette proposed burying Voltaire there so that that nation could honor him. He proposed the idea of making it a secular temple to honor the great men of France by interring their ashes in the underground recesses. In April 1791, the Constituent Assembly placed an inscription on the pediment that translates to “A grateful nation honors its great men.”

With much fuss, Voltaire’s ashes were moved to the newly named Pantheon on July 21, 1791.  Rosseau was pantheonized opposite him in October 1794.

Several people were honored with pantheonization, which was then revoked. Mirabeau was the first chosen to be honored, but since his niche wasn’t ready yet, his remains were sent to another church nearby. After he was interred there, it was discovered that he had committed treason against the Republic and he was uninvited. Le Peletier was pantheonized for voting for the death of the king and then being assassinated by a Royalist, but his family claimed his body in 1794. Marat was pantheonized the day Mirabeau was kicked out, but was himself kicked out the following year. After that, it was decided that people needed to be dead at least 10 years before they could be buried in the Pantheon.

IMG_6693Architect Quatremere de Quincy took over the Pantheon in 1791. He decided it needed to look gloomier, more like a mausoleum, so he bricked up all the lower windows. He also destroyed all the religious statuary, replacing it with statues of Liberty and France. Saint Genevieve herself was evicted in August 1792, after the fall of the monarchy.

 

Early in 1806, the Pantheon once again became a church after an agreement between Napoleon and the Pope. The upstairs returned to Saint Genevieve, but the crypt remained secular. A second entrance was built and 41 people were pantheonized between 1806 and 1815. Fifteen of them were officers, including generals who took part in Napoleon’s victories in Europe. 27 of them were senators.

With the restitution of the monarchy, the king signed the Pantheon back over to the church in its totality in 1816. It was consecrated for the first time in January 1822. Genevieve’s relics were reconstituted somehow.

In 1829, the architect Soufflot was buried in the crypt: the only addition during the reign of Charles X.

The July Revolution of 1830 put Louis-Phillippe on the throne. He closed the Pantheon/St. Genevieve’s church to the public.

In 1851, Foucault installed a pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. (A reconstruction hangs there now, while the original pendulum hangs at the Museum of Arts and Sciences). After Catholic opposition, the experiment was ended in December 1851.

Also that year, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) staged a coup d’etat to reinstate the Empire. He gave the church back to the Catholics, called it a national basilica, reinstalled Genevieve’s reliquary, and added a chapter of canons.

After the Second Empire collapsed in September 1870, the crypt was used to store munitions while the Prussians besieged the city. The Pantheon’s dome was damaged in the fighting. The Paris Commune took over the church in March 1871 and also stored munitions in the crypt. They were driven out by army artillery.

IMG_6717When Victor Hugo died in 1885, he lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe before being inhumed in the Pantheon. No ten-year wait for him. He was joined by Emile Zola in 1908 and Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) was added in 2002.

Other internees in the Pantheon range from statesmen to military heroes to the assassinated President of the Third Republic. The heart of socialist hero, founder of the Third Republic, Leon Gambetta was added in 1920. Scientists include Pierre-Eugene Marcellin Bertheot, a chemist who became Minister of Education and Foreign Affairs, and physicists Paul Langevin and Jean Perrin. Louis Braille, inventor of the most common alphabet for the blind, was added in 1952.

IMG_6701After World War II, an inscription was added upstairs in the church to remember Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, who had served as an aviator and was lost when his plane went down near Corsica.

In 1981, on the day of his investiture, Francois Mitterand laid a single red rose at the graves of Victor Schoelcher, Jean Jaures, and Moulin, who were defenders of Human Rights. Schoelcher had been pantheonized in 1949 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

Pantheonizations continue to this day. In 1987, Rene Cassin, who’d received the Nobel Prize for Human Rights was added. He was followed in 1988 by Jean Mannet, the founder of the European Community.

IMG_6722The ashes of Pierre and Marie Curie were transferred to the Pantheon in 1995. She was the first woman to be buried there on her own merits.

Pantheonizations continue to this day. Currently, there is a push to add more diversity to those honored.

Other cemeteries in Paris on Cemetery Travel:

Pere Lachaise

Montparnasse

Napoleon’s Tomb

The Paris Ossuary

 

Cemetery of the Week #148: Sagrada Familia

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The rear of Sagrada Familia, with construction cranes. All photos by Loren Rhoads.

Sagrada Familia Basilica
c/ Mallorca 401
08013 Barcelona, Spain
Telephone: (34) 932 080 414
Founded: 1882
Number of Interments: 2
Open: The hours change on Holy Days and also according to the season. Entry is only available with a timed-entry ticket. Entry times do sell out, so book online in advance at http://www.sagradafamilia.org.

When it is finally completed, the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família may be the most controversial church in the world. It is certainly the strangest looking. The BBC compared it to a gigantic stone cluster of termites’ nests or a gingerbread house baked by the wickedest witch of all. Even Salvador Dali admired its “terrifying and edible beauty.”

The foundation stone of the Expiatory Church of the Holy Family was laid by its first architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar, in 1882. A year and a half later, Antoni Gaudi took over the project, working on it for 43 years. The church is so enormous that 8000 people can worship there simultaneously.

img_6541Although the basilica became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, work on it continues today. Estimates vary from 10 to 50 years to complete construction. Just a reminder: although construction machinery may be working inside the sanctuary when you visit, the basilica is a “place for prayer, silence, and reflection.” Behave yourself.

On November 7, 2010, the church of La Sagrada Familia was consecrated as a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. A basilica has special privileges, according to the Catholic church. Often they are built above the graves of saints.

At the age of 74, Gaudi was run down by a streetcar at the intersection of Carrer de Bailén and the Gran Vía in June 1926. Taxi drivers refused to believe the raggedy old man was not a beggar, so they refused to transport him to a hospital. Eventually, neighbors carried him to the Holy Cross charity hospital, where he died several days later.

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Looking down into the crypt. The candles at the top of the photo burn at Gaudi’s grave.

 

Although few Barcelonans had actually met Gaudi, thousands dressed in black to line the streets as his body was carried back to the church he had designed and overseen for so many years. Gaudi’s grave is located in an underground chapel beneath the apse where the basilica’s main altar stands. A group called the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi is working to prove his holiness and set him on the road to sainthood.

img_6556In the meantime, devotion for Gaudi must be done privately. It cannot be done publicly until the Church beatifies him. The only way to visit his grave is to attend mass in the crypt, although they are only celebrated in Catalan and Spanish. The mass schedule is available online at http://www.sagradafamilia.org.

Gaudi’s chapel is dedicated to the Virgin of El Carmen, who is also called Stella Maris, the Queen of the Seas. She is the patron of fishermen and mariners.

Buried elsewhere in the crypt is Josep María Bocabella, who conceived the idea of building La Sagrada Familia. Bocabella was a printer of religious books who made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Loreto in Italy. That church contains what is alleged to be the house in which the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce her pregnancy. Angels carried the house to Italy in the 13th century, it was said, to save it from desecration.

An estimated 3 million people visit La Sagrada Familia each year, contributing an estimated 25 million euros annually to its construction costs.

Resources:

BBC’s feature on Sagrada Familia

An article from 2000 said that so many people want to leave offerings at Gaudi’s tomb that a passage would be opened from the museum, but as of 2016, this had not been done.

Gaudi and Barcelona Club

Death’s Garden: The Original Catacomb

St. Sebastian 300 dpi001On our last morning in Rome, Mason and I wandered around the Piazza Venezia, trying to find the Archaeobus that would take us out to the Appian Way. I was sick with a cold I’d picked up in the Vatican (go figure) and we’d had no time for breakfast. As we rushed down the stairs near Trajan’s column, I missed a step. When I painfully straightened my legs, I discovered I’d skinned both knees. Miraculously, the fall hadn’t torn my slacks. I limped to the bus stop and was swept off on our adventure.

The ancient Christian catacombs hadn’t initially been on my “must-see in Rome” list. However, the more I read, the more it seemed I should overcome my skepticism. A lot of history had been buried in the old tunnels.

Beyond the third mile marker, the Archaeobus dropped us off near the Catacombe di San Sebastiano. A mob already loitered in the plaza. Mason and I hurried into the cloister on the right side of the small yellow basilica to be near the entrance when the catacomb reopened after lunch.

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Entry ticket for St. Sebastian’s catacombs

We bought our tickets at a window barred like an old train station. The lobby occupied a long low room full of fragments of marble and terracotta, many clamped tightly to the brown walls. Each item had a relief on it: a bird, a fish, a lamb symbols of Christianity to people who couldn’t read.

These shards of ransacked tombs saddened me. The bodies have been removed from their rest, whether portioned out by the Church or otherwise disrupted. For me, the grave is not the person, but I feel that the spirit of the person enlivens the grave. A vacant tomb has lost something that a rock never owned. Whoever they were to those who loved them, these people have been swallowed by time.

A German-speaking guide summoned a small group of tourists to follow him down the steps, leaving Mason and me in the chilly gallery of shattered tombs. A busload of chattering American tourists filed in behind us. Mason wondered if we should follow the Germans, even without understanding the guide, just so we’d be able to see everything below our feet without the mob.

An English-speaking guide appeared. A cheerful Turkish woman, Maria spoke with a mélange of British and Middle Eastern inflections. She glowed with inspiration. She had clearly been “called” to talk about the catacombs, her faith strengthened by the history of the martyrs below our feet. I was relieved that she felt no need to testify. Instead, she assumed we were all Christians, that we began with the same point of view.

Maria led us partially down the steps so that she could count the group. Thirty-seven of us would muddle through the tunnels together. Some were frail old people: ladies as fragile as birds, an elderly gentleman who leaned heavily on his middle-aged daughter. At the risk of gross generalization, many of the others appeared to be teachers on spring break. Other than a knot of African American women in bright flowered dresses, ninety-five percent of the group was white. Mason and I embodied the low edge of the age curve.

Our guide promised that there would be no ghosts in the tunnels. There were no longer any bodies, either. Most had been removed in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the catacombs suffered at the mercy of barbarian hordes who couldn’t breach the walls of Rome.

Maria ran through some figures for us: thousands of graves in four levels comprised the seven miles of Saint Sebastian’s catacombs. The tour passed through only a fraction of the second level. The other levels were unlocked only to archaeologists blessed by the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra, a bureau of the Vatican.

Sebastian interior001The steps reached a landing, then turned to continue downward. We had to take care not to jostle each other on the stairs. I had visions of some lady breaking her hip. Before long, the group reached a level and surged forward. The air, already cold and still, lost another couple of degrees.

Yellow globes, hung at intervals near the tunnel’s ceiling, did little to brighten the gloom. Other tunnels, also lighted, branched off at right angles. They tempted me, but I dreaded getting lost.

Our guide directed our attention overhead with the beam of her flashlight. A pickaxe had scarred the ceiling. “They excavated the catacomb by hand,” Maria explained. “The ground here is called tufa, a lava rock that is easy to dig. Fossores, special miners in service to the early church, planned the excavations and did the digging. They carried the earth away in baskets.”

She turned our attention to the walls of the tunnel. It looked as if bunks had been carved into the stone, irregular indentations that appeared comfy enough to crawl into. The bed of each cubbyhole lay reasonably flat. The shallow niches spanned just large enough to tuck a body inside.

Maria said, “The dead would be wound in a sheet and placed here, without a coffin, then a slab of marble if they were wealthy or terracotta would seal them inside. You may wonder how they reached the graves at the top.” She swept her flashlight beam upward. “They filled the graves on top first, then dug the floor down below them.” In the tunnel where we stood, the floor had been lowered five times.

She gestured to another hole. Carved between columns of larger holes, this one spanned only as long as my arm and barely deep enough for a bed pillow. “You’ll see a lot of graves for children,” she warned. “Infant mortality was high.”

Maria set off at a pretty good pace into the maze of tunnels. We used Mason’s flashlight to peer into graves as we passed. Each featureless hole had been stripped of mementos.

We walked by low arched compartments that began level with the tunnel floor and reached hip-high. Eventually we passed one with its sarcophagus still in place. Did you know that the word sarcophagus means flesh-eating stone? The original Greek sarcophagi were so named because the kind of limestone used speeded up dissolution of the corpse within.

That’s the sort of thing I knew going into the tour. I’m sure we could have had more lecture if there hadn’t been approximately forty of us in the group. Few areas were large enough that such a large group could coalesce. The guide spoke only when all of us could hear, which I don’t dispute, but I’m sure we passed treasures she never mentioned.

In some places, the tunnel expanded into small rooms with low, vaulted ceilings. The configuration made me think of a snake who’d swallowed an egg. Those rooms had once entombed families. We jammed into one, mostly dark as a cave. I huddled into the hollow where a shadowy altar stood, more concerned about cobwebs than ghosts. Then again, what would spiders eat so far underground?

I tried to conjure a sense of what the place must have been like when bodies filled it. There was, of course, no embalming in the Roman world of the second and third centuries. When people died, their survivors had to cart them out of Rome, since the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial inside the city walls. Most Romans would not have owned a horse or an ox, especially not Christians, who tended to come from the lower and slave classes. I suspect that transportation of a cadaver presented a pressing concern in the Roman summer.

So here we have a cool though unrefrigerated compound of seven miles of unembalmed corpses. I envisioned early Christians negotiating the tunnels by the flickering light of clay oil lamps, through air clouded with myrrh and the inescapable, cloying sweetness of rot.

The pagan majority of Romans disposed of their dead by cremation. They burned corpses on a pyre, then collected the ashes into an urn. These urns of ashes were placed in tombs that lined the Appian Way, the road to Ostia through the Porta San Paolo, and all the other old roads leading out of Rome.

Jews practiced inhumation burial in earth in observation of Genesis 3:19: “Earth you are and to Earth you shall return.” We hear it most commonly as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Christians pursued this custom, burying their dead because Christ had been placed whole in his tomb. Like Christ, early Christians anticipated bodily resurrection.

So this was a vast maze of rotting bodies where the souls were believed to linger, awaiting resurrection. Some of these dead did not go gently to their graves but had been martyred, dying for their faith. How could there not be ghosts?

Romans called a collection of graves a necropolis: a city of the dead. Christians, many of whom spoke Greek rather than Latin, referred to their burial places as coemeteria, equivalent to dormitories. The root of dormitory means to sleep. Christians believed that their dead were merely resting (ideally in peace) until Christ came again and ushered them into heaven. This is why we refer to a graveyard as a cemetery.

Maria led us into a room unlike any we’d visited. Marble sheathed its floor. Its walls were whitewashed. In contrast to the rest of the catacomb, this room was brightly lit. It seemed spacious until the tour group spread out into it.

On my left stood a simple stone table, draped with a spotless white cloth edged in lace. Across from that, on a pedestal, balanced a polished marble bust of a man in pain or ecstasy. The bust was so wonderfully crafted that my fingertips tingled, wanting to touch that emotion.

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Prayer card for St. Sebastian

Maria said, “Sebastian was a Roman soldier who decided he could no longer persecute Christians. The other soldiers tied him to a tree and shot him with their arrows. They left him to die, but he recovered from his wounds and started to preach. They captured him a second time and killed him. Christians buried his body beneath this altar. This has always been known. This room has always been a place of worship. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he had a church built above the catacombs and Saint Sebastian’s bones moved into the basilica, directly over our heads.”

A friend of mine (who hadn’t grown up Catholic) believed Sebastian to be the most homoerotic saint. Bound mostly naked to his tree, his soldier’s body straining against the ropes, mouth open in passion: Sebastian’s image has inspired artists for centuries. Bernini, the architect who decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, had carved the bust before us. I wondered that such a rare and valuable piece of art remained out where people might touch it.

The tour group flowed into a room with a low, arched ceiling. Glass encased its carefully lighted far wall. “This is another holy place,” Maria said reverently. “For a while, the Saints Peter and Paul were buried here.”

That seemed unlikely to me. St. Peter’s Basilica, at the heart of Vatican City, claims to have Peter’s body in its crypt. The legend is that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero and buried nearby in the pagan necropolis on Vatican Hill. I’m not clear why the early Christians would have moved his body to this catacomb so far from Rome, then moved it back (where they promptly lost it) until the excavations to build the current St. Peter’s in the sixteenth century. It’s not impossible, but it’s a lot of lugging for his bones to end up buried back where they began.

Paul also was supposed to have been brought from the site of his martyrdom and buried in this room, only to be transported back to the Via Ostiense where Emperor Constantine later built a basilica in his honor.

The evidence for these postmortem migrations? Graffiti. Scratched into the plaster were prayers in Greek, addressed to the Apostle and the Evangelist.

I had been willing to accept all else as history, if perhaps churchified history, but the temporary burials tweaked my skepticism. Our incandescent guide glowed with faith.

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The Roman tombs

The tour made one final stop. At some point during the excavation of the catacomb in the late 1800s, church archaeologists had discovered three Roman-era tombs. These little villas had been perfectly preserved when the low area where they stood had been filled with rubble to support the church above.

I waited for the crowd to move ahead so I could peer into the Roman tombs. Beautiful delicate mosaics brightened the surprisingly roomy interiors. One tomb had a staircase that stretched down to the tunnels below it. I found it hard to conceive that the Christian architects had just thrown rubble down on these lovely tombs.

“Here is the origin of the word catacomb,” Maria said before we left the area. “This place was called cata cumbas, meaning the low place near the quarries. Here stood a crevice between the tufa hills where the Romans cremated their dead. Since it was already a necropolis, it made sense for the Christians to bury their dead here.”

From this place, the word catacomb spread to refer to any hall of Christian tombs, from the ossuary in the quarry under Paris to the aboveground mausoleum complex at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

I got all excited. Though I had been ill and injured, it was a thrill to visit a place that inspired so much of what I’ve studied. I suppose the feeling must echo what the Christian tourists felt as they completed their pilgrimages.

This essay was originally published in Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.