Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Places of the Dead

Halloween is an abbreviated form of “All Hallows Evening,” which is the beginning of a three day celebration called Allhallowtide.  According to Wikipedia, it is “the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.” During our trip to Italy, we visited two sites dedicated to remembering the dead—one Christian and one pagan.

The Roman Catacombs

My studies in Christian history shaped my opinion that the Catacombs around Rome were hiding places used by early Christians to escape Roman persecution. More recent archeological studies have shown that the Catacomb tunnels were dug as burial places for non-pagan believers.  We went to Rome eager to visit this piece of Christian history. Our tour took us outside the ancient Roman walls, into the depths of hand-dug tunnels and labyrinths deep in the ground. The volcanic soil and rock of the region provided the right medium for digging these mysterious caves.

Inside the Catacombs
Pagan Rome was not friendly to Jewish and Christian believers in the first century after Christ. The rich and powerful nobility were entombed after death in magnificent crypts within the city walls of Rome. The slaves and common people of Rome were cremated and their ashes scattered outside the walls. But Christians believed that their resurrected bodies would be called forth from their graves when Christ returned, so they wanted their bodies to be buried intact. The only burial sites available to them were the underground tunnels they dug by hand.

Catacomb Painting
As we descended into the dark abyss, we didn’t know what to expect. Our passage was lit by our guide’s hat lantern as we wound our way single file through tunnel after tunnel.  There were a few places that were more open where our group could gather.  We were told these areas were used by families to share meals with their deceased loved ones.  After thirty minutes underground, I was chilled, spooked, and claustrophobic and couldn’t wait to see the sunlight at the end of the tunnel.  Quite an experience to remember, but not one I want to repeat. 

The Ruins of Pompeii

Pompeii was founded as a resort for the nobility from Rome, since it was close to the Bay of Naples and in view of beautiful Mt. Vesuvius.  The dormant volcano violently awoke in 79 AD, and within twenty-four hours belched millions of tons of volcanic ash, rock, lava, and gas into the southern Italian countryside. The ancient pagan city of Pompeii was smothered by the ash that rained from the sky.  Many of its 20,000 residents heeded the warnings of the rumbling mountain and ran for their lives, but the 2,000 who chose to stay were suffocated and buried alive.
Mt. Vesuvius & Pompeii Ruins
Explorers discovered the site of Pompeii in the late 1500s, but evacuations didn’t begin until 1748. Once the digging began, they discovered the walls, paintings, frescos, and mosaics of a prosperous Roman city preserved by the ash that buried it. After 1600 years, the shapes of bodies encased in ash were still recognizable. Plaster was poured into the shapes to preserve the remains.
It was not easy to navigate the rough and winding streets of Pompeii, but what we saw was worth the effort. We could almost picture every day activity as we walked through the remains of the large and colorful homes of the rich and powerful, the shops of the merchants, and the cramped houses of the slaves.  The giant amphitheater that held gladiator competitions and stage performances was well preserved and equally interesting.   

We remembered the dead during our recent trip to Italy as we explored two ancient burial sites. I think I prefer the Americanized version of “All Hallows Evening” as the costumed kids make their rounds saying “Trick or Treat.”


  1. What a wonderful trip. What a wonderful story. BBT

  2. I could not go into those tunnels, I am so claustrophobic. Very interesting information for your (as always) great blog. Thanks and Happy Halloween. BOO