I walk down their ranks with that awkward confusion of trying to make sense of what it is I'm actually feeling. In the West we don't often see dead bodies—the absence of life is shrouded and hidden. These dead have a mystique; they come with an attitude and previous convictions. Examining the corpses with a morbid interest—so this is what death looks like—I realize that the big difference between the living and the dead is that you can stare at the dead with an intense, close-up curiosity that the living would never tolerate. And then I think they really ought to be playing Michael Jackson's "Thriller" as background music, given how like prosthetic, schlock-horror-effect zombies these bodies look, how comically and pathetically the great denouement of nature mimics not just art but cheap art. Their jaws hang open in silent yowls, rotting teeth grin with menace, eye sockets stare bleakly, shreds of hard skin cling to shrunken cheeks and arthritic knuckles. These people are mostly small, their arms crossed as they sag against the wire and nails that hold them upright, their heads lolling on shoulders, bodies slowly collapsing with the effort of imitating a past life.
The corridors are segregated into religious folk and professional, meaning doctors and lawyers and a couple of vaudeville grand soldiers in their carabinieri uniforms. There's a women's corridor where the guide points out that we can admire the fashions of the past. The skeletons stand in shredded rags, grimed and bleached a murky gray. There is little to admire. A side chapel is devoted to those who died virgins, especially poignant and by contemporary mores a pathetically cruel appellation to carry into eternity. When they were interred here, they must have appeared as symbols of purity amongst the decay.
And then there is a small chapel for infants. The children are dressed in their party frocks, propped up like living-dead dolls. One sits on a nursery chair with a little skeleton on her lap, perhaps a younger sibling, unbearably pitiful and simultaneously laughably grotesque.