Guest Blog: What a Piece of Work is Man by Loren Rhoads

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What a Piece of Work is Man

by Loren Rhoads

From the Via Veneto, home of La Dolce Vita, the yellow brick church didn’t look like much. Mason marched up the sidewalk past it, but something about the name Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione gave me pause. “I think we’re here,” I called after him.

One might expect that a centuries-old international tourist attraction like the Church of the Immaculate Conception would have a multilingual sign. Not until we climbed the first flight of stairs up to a landing large enough to be considered a patio did we see a small plaque with an arrow pointing toward the Coemeterium.

That caught me off guard. I hadn’t expected to see a cemetery, which I think of as bodies buried in dirt or, at least, bodies hidden behind stone. We had come to see skeletons. This Capuchin “cemetery” ranked with the Paris Catacombs and Kutna Hora’s Bone Chapel in the European triumvirate of weird assemblages made from human bones. The visit marked a pilgrimage for me.

The Capuchins separated from other Franciscan monastic orders in 1525 AD. The Capuchin monks wanted to exist closer to the way St. Francis of Assisi had lived at the turn of the thirteenth century. To that end, they wore sandals without socks and a simple brown tunic that had a hood to cover their heads when the weather turned bad. The name Capuchin derives from this hood, called a capuce.

Capuchin monks gathered in houses near woods or green spaces, where they could meditate. They planted orchards, in which their work served as prayer. They cared for the poor, especially the sick. They continue those ministrations today.

In 1631, the Capuchins of Rome moved from their friary near where the Trevi Fountain now stands to land donated by Cardinal Barberini near his palace. The monks exhumed and brought with them bones of 4000 of their brethren. These bones were piled under their new church of Santa Maria della Concezione, in six rooms connected by a sixty-meter corridor.

Sometime in the 1700s, arrangement of the bones began. Several theories exist about the identities of the decorators. Either they were French Capuchins who fled the Terror, or a notorious criminal who sought refuge with the monks and atoned for his crimes by positioning the bones, or a man of “ardent faith, who is almost joking with death,” as the brochure suggests. The Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, suspected that a German priest constructed the decor.

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Just inside a thick wooden door to the “cemetery” sat a paper-thin old man in blue coveralls. People tossed money into his wicker basket as they passed his rickety wooden table. Since the Capuchin catacombs were our first destination in Italy, we only had large bills or very small ones, neither of which Mason considered an appropriate donation. He put in a couple of thousand lira notes and hoped that once everyone came in, he could make change out of the basket to add more.

Although I felt devastated to be forbidden to photograph the bones, nothing prevented note-taking. I tugged my notebook out of my backpack and jotted down descriptions of the crypts.

A dim hallway stretched ahead of us. Gray light flowed in through cloudy windows facing an alley alongside the church. Inside the “cemetery,” the cool air smelled of dust.

To the left of the hallway, a painting of Christ leading Lazarus from the tomb dominated the first room. Grasping his friend’s wrist, Christ tugged the revenant up from the ground. The former corpse was nearly naked: his shroud had slipped down beneath his buttocks. Turned away from the viewer toward his sisters and Christ, Lazarus’s expression was impossible to gauge. One can only imagine his thoughts after having spent four days in his grave. Lettered boldly in yellow at the bottom was the legend: “Lazare veni foras”: Lazarus, come forth.

The command made me uncomfortable as we stood outside a room crammed with bones. I had a sense that the monks had tried to use as many bones as possible here, in order to fit everyone in. Skulls formed two triangular arches, beneath which lay the dusty mummies of two monks in tattered brown robes. I wanted to climb the low fence, step across the holy dirt brought from Jerusalem, and take a feather duster to the cadavers. Mason pointed out that the Catholic Church probably had a sacred maid to dust the hallowed bones. Looked to me like she didn’t come around often enough.

The next room — the only one on the corridor free of bones — served as the cemetery’s mass chapel. The altarpiece depicted Mary seated on a cloud. A toddler Jesus stood on her knee, his nakedness shielded a mere wisp of white fabric. With the help of three monks in brown robes and an angel in gray, they raised souls out of the flames of purgatory. Only one of the dead seemed to be female: she was modestly wrapped in more fire than the others. A dead man gave her the eye: bold behavior at the feet of his savior.

Next door, the Crypt of the Skulls had been decorated with curved niches formed by arm and thighbones, supporting cornices of skulls. Inside each arch lay another dusty monk.

In the tympanum of the central niche hung an hourglass made of two tailbones tip to tip. The bottom coccyx looked darker in color, as if the sands of time had all run down. A double row of very straight bones, perhaps somebody’s forearms, drew the hourglass’s case. Outside the case, four shoulder blades symbolized wings. While the message was certainly intended to be serious, I smiled at the artwork. Time flies, as these bones testified. The bone art seemed lighthearted, though not at all disrespectful. Joking with Death, indeed.

Ornaments made of bones continued overhead. A garden of ribs suggested furrows of earth, where tulips bloomed into single vertebrae. A chain formed by jawbones came to a point, from which descended a lamp made from a sheaf of thighbones. Unfortunately, it wasn’t illuminated. I wondered if it had been wired for electricity. Baroque squares with in-turned corners decorated the ceiling. A double row of vertebrae sketched these on the wall. Inside blossomed ten-pointed stars made of tailbones.

Next came the Crypt of the Pelvises. Against the back wall rose an ornate canopy made from stacks of pelvic bones. The flat planes of the hipbones nested together like scales or roof tiles. A fringe of vertebrae dangled from the cupola.

Mummies of three monks leaned into the room, so stooped they seemed to be bowing. Each cradled a wooden cross in the sagging sleeves of his robe. From their cuffs protruded hands that looked like withered sticks wrapped in autumn leaves. More than anything that had once been human, the monks’ leathery faces looked like masks from some science fiction film. I suppose that two hundred and fifty years of standing around in the open air will do that to a person.

Reading up on them later, I learned that some of the mummies are unidentified. I’d assumed that anyone important enough to preserve “whole” would have been important enough to remember. The records must have been misplaced or destroyed.

My favorite decorations in the Crypt of the Pelvises were crosses suspended from the ceiling formed of thighbones. X-ed across them were shinbones. Something about the mobile aspect of these dangling three-dimensional crosses struck my fancy.

Though the fifth room was called the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thighbones, its predominant motif seemed to be skulls. Rows of leg bones interspersed with orderly stacks of skulls gave the overall impression of pinstripes. It was an incredibly beautiful arrangement — and functional, because it used up a great deal of bones. When you’ve got thousands of dead monks to jam into five rooms, you’ve got to get busy.

The room’s centerpiece caught my eye. Two severed arms, lopped off at the shoulders, had been affixed to the back wall. The arm on top was bare; the other wore a rough brown sleeve. Their skin had dried to the color of paper ash. Instead of curled into fists, bones protruded through their outstretched fingertips as if they wore Fagin’s gloves. The image shocked me more than anything else I’d seen. All the other bodies were either complete or defleshed. These amputated limbs looked inexplicably creepy.

(Much later, while researching the details of this essay, I discovered their significance. They represent the Franciscan coat of arms: the bare arm of Christ crossed over the robed arm of Francis of Assisi.)

The final room, called the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, was the most ornate. Complete skeletons of two children lounged over the altar made of pelvises on the back wall. The children reached up toward an adult skull. One child held a short spear like a fishing pole. The other balanced a winged hourglass atop his ribcage.

Another small skeleton lay flat against the ceiling. He held a staff formed of shinbones crested with a blade of scapulae. In his other hand swung a scale whose cups were skullcaps, dangling from chains strung of finger bones. A halo of foot bones and vertebrae encircled him. He was the least threatening death figure I’d ever seen. Even his grin looked wistful.

I turned to look back down the hall and saw an ornate clock above the arched doorway. Hand and finger bones formed its large Roman numerals. A breastbone served as its single hour hand. I read later that the clock symbolized that eternity had no beginning or end.

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The ultimate sensation I took away from the Capuchin crypts? Joy. I could not interpret the lacy tracery of vertebrae and foot bones and ribs on the vaulted ceilings as anything other than ecstatic. What wonderful creatures we are, how marvelously made! Inside us hide complicated puzzles. Whether you believe in the cosmic clockmaker or rest your faith in evolution, you have to admit that humans — with joints that knit together, tailbones like doilies and shoulder blades like wings, the myriad complicated bones of hands and feet, the inquisitive orbits of our eyes, the cuplike hollows of our pelvises — are miraculous creatures.

Mason pointed out that most of the tourists in the dusty twilight corridor grinned. It was difficult not to get caught up in the joie de vivre of the decorators.

The sole English-language text Mason and I found inside the “cemetery” said that the monks made the place for three reasons: because the body doesn’t matter, to glorify God’s handiwork inside man, but especially because time is so short that one can’t wait to do good works.

We bought a stack of postcards from the little man in blue. Mason threw a larger bill into the collection plate. The caretaker beamed at us and disappeared under the church to find the last brochure they had in English. After he returned, Mason and I slipped out into the Roman sunshine to search out the Pantheon and the Mausoleum of Augustus. Life seemed rich and full. I was in Italy with the man I love and Rome was full of dead people. Carpe diem.

 

 

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It’s part of All you Need is Morbid, which was published on Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/story/19869433-all-you-need-is-morbid
Loren Rhoads is the cemetery columnist at Gothic Beauty. She also blogs about graveyards as vacation destinations at CemeteryTravel.com. Her book 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die will be out in October 2017.

Vile Vacations: The Haunted Queen Mary Experience

qm18Visiting the retired, permanently moored RMS Queen Mary is an experience in itself. You don’t have to experience ghost activity to feel the history on board. They offer awesome tour packs where you can see the engine rooms, one of the exposed propellers, and the rumored haunted “Vortex” near the dilapidated—but beautiful—pool. I’ve been fortunate to visit several times and even stay overnight a few years ago. I will give you a tour and then explain my experience. You can decide if the place is really haunted or not.

qm10The ship in general is a fantastic place to visit with so much history to explore. For Titanic enthusiasts, it’s a must-visit. As part of the White Star Line, this so closely resembles Titanic, that you will find yourself doing double-takes as you pass the promenade deck, the dining room, and even the inner room halls. Not only does it resemble the famous iceberg-disabled ship, many movies, and TV shows have been filmed on the Queen Mary so you might find the place familiar as you step on board, which adds to the mystique. The Queen Mary has graced the sets of movies like Titanic II, Pearl Harbor, Aviator, The Natural, The 13th Floor, and television series such as The Search for the Next Elvira, Moonlight, Murder She Wrote, Unsolved Mysteries, and Quantum Leap. They also have historical exhibits that run for a short time. If you are into the royals and fashion, you might enjoy the pricey but beautiful exhibit on now, “Diana: Legacy of a Princess” where you can see many of her iconic dresses in person. They also have other royal history and some of the clothes from the current monarch. For military buffs, the QM played a big part in the WWII effort as a transport ship for Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Per Wikipedia,

In the WWII conversion, the ship’s hull, superstructure and funnels were painted navy grey. As a result of her new color, and in combination with her great speed, she became known as the “Grey Ghost.”

As far as hauntings on the ship, there have been many reported. No wonder, since at least 49 crew and passengers are known to have died during the Queen Mary‘s service as a luxury liner.

qm16In the engine room, our tour guide told us of one such haunting. Although somewhat “set-up” by and ominous number 13, the guide recalled a sailor was crushed by this water-tight door. They aren’t clear on the “why”, but it’s attributed to him either playing chicken or going back to grab something in an emergency. The ship’s underground system of working tunnels is certainly creepy, but as for ghosts? Who knows?

qm19Another creepy location on the ship is the ominous 1st Class Pool. Those horror buffs out there will swear it was the pool in the movie Ghostship, but it’s not.
Still, the effect of the once-beautiful place being in complete disrepair sent a chill up my spine. Pardon the dim pictures because of lack of light and the fact that we could not explore the place fully because most of the pool was closed due to safety regulations. The most haunted place in the pool area is purported to be what they call the “Vortex” located in the pool showers.qm11I took a picture standing right in the middle of the “Vortex” although warned by the tour guide, “It may not come out, or your phone might die.” He said reports of this happening are frequent and that several people have found light spots or “ghost” images in their photos. I played along, and it was fun to imagine, but as you can see, that did not happen. My picture is clear of “ghosties” and I didn’t feel anything but the same creepiness you feel when entering any derelict structure.

So, if I didn’t feel anything in the most haunted part of the ship, what did I feel? I had two experiences that will stay with me forever.

qm14First, when we were walking through the bowels of the ship, I kept feeling like someone was behind me. I was the last one in the tour at that time. I kept looking behind me and would catch just a shadow or a blur. Not really anything tangible, but enough to creep you out. This was before the tour guide told us about the crewman of hatch 13 that was crushed there. It creeped me out, but only because I kept feeling the presence the entire time we were in the down below.

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When we went into this particularly dark part of the ship, standing at the doorway into the place, I became nauseous. The boat is moored, so there is no movement to make me sick. I stepped into the huge room and felt like someone had given me a push into the room. Again, I was the last one in and no one was behind me. My nausea grew and I wasn’t able to even step forward to where the rest of the tour was. My husband asked if I was okay and I nodded, motioning him on so he look at the mechanics of the ship. As my stomachache grew, my attention was drawn to a door up high looking over us. The door was open, and light shone through from an unseen bulb, but it wasn’t anywhere anyone would be. However, in my periphery, I saw someone standing there. I looked up and nothing was there. It kind of creeped me out, but after the “sighting”(?) I felt fine again and was able to enjoy the rest of the tour without incident. In the pictures (Again I apologize for poor light shots.) the large shot is the massive room we entered. There are light spots, but I doubt they were ghost proof because it was so dusty in the room. In the second shot, you can see the room where I felt the presence standing. Doesn’t appear that I caught anything on film. However, a few people who have seen the shot wonder if I did catch a ghost. The head is higher than a normal human would stand. Is the partial shot of a mustached man a spirit? Or is it just a pipe and a trick of sight? I still don’t know what I believe about the picture, but I do know a male presence was following me during this part of the tour. Was a ghost or spirit following me through the crew hatches to cause menace? Or was he guiding me to make sure I stayed safe? Or was it merely making its self known to mark its territory?

 

qm3qm5My second experience happened in our suite. We stayed in the Eisenhower Suite. If anyone knows me, they know I am so not a history—especially political—buff. If I know history, it’s usually fashion or something I’ve had to research for a book. I knew nothing about Eisenhower nor did I have an impression of the president before I stayed there. The suite was beautiful. It felt luxurious to have not only a quite sizable bedroom (for a ship) and bathroom, but also another servants quarters where I could lay out my stuff and put on my makeup. qm21Probably the posh-est place I’ve stayed, not counting the inconvenience of the bathroom on a ship. (We kept stubbing our toes on the raised bathroom entry and in the shower, the tub was so circular, you had to stand with one foot in front of the other like walking tight rope while washing.) Laying down in the fresh clean sheets with my husband next to me, I thought there couldn’t be any place more comfortable.

Unfortunately, the night of sleep was not as good as we planned. Beyond the sounds of the ship (Pipes creaking and pounding, the movement of others, and various sounds we were unused to.) I found my sleep state to hover on the “almost awake” state. qm6During this night, I kept hearing the tinkling of a dog’s tags and the light pressure of a small dog hoping on the bed. It was so real to me, I woke and looked down at the foot of the bed several times, sure it had actually happened. I haven’t had a dog since I was a child and I haven’t felt that dog jumping on the bed thing since then, but it was unmistakable. The next morning, I related the story to my husband and he agreed, he had been kept in REM sleep for what seemed like all night. Although he had the same trouble sleeping, he did not feel or hear the dog. After telling a few people of my experience—and not connecting it at all with Eisenhower and his dogs—my friends started a discussion about his dogs and which one might have been alive when he traveled on the Queen Mary in 1946. The connection is interesting.

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Eisenhower and his Terrier “Fala”.

I don’t know if Eisenhower even boarded with a dog on his voyage, but it certainly makes sense. All I know is that it was a small-type dog like a Terrier. But what did I really experience? Was it the ghost or imprint of one of the President’s dogs? Or was it someone else’s dog that perished onboard? Or perhaps for the skeptic, it’s more believable that I had a kernel of a memory from years ago about Eisenhower having a dog that I didn’t remember…and my brain caused me to “dream” of this fact in my unconscious state?

Whether you visit the Queen Mary to experience it’s greatness or to attend the annual “Dark Harbor” Halloween event, this is a haunted locale you can’t miss. I would advise to come for the tours, but not to stay overnight, unless you don’t mind little sleep.

Have you been to a haunted locale? Tell us about it. Email: horroraddicts@gmail.com

Vile Vacation Idea: Hoia-Baciu Forest in Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Keeping up with the theme this month of Vile Vacations, I wanted to think of a place I could go to ensure that I would have nightmares to come! I thought of the world’s most haunted forest: Hoia-Baciu Forest in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. This forest has so much to offer someone like myself: Urban Legend, paranormal activity, creepy fairy tale like trees, and even UFO sightings!

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Located in the historical region of Transylvania, and a massive forest at 617 acres (250 hectares) you can definitely get lost at night. Especially with no compass or sense of direction, this forest is also nicknamed as the “Bermuda Triangle of Transylvania”.  It is named after a shepherd that disappeared along with two hundred sheep. This makes the locals believe that if they go in the forest, they may never return. Also, they believe that some souls of the locals who have been murdered go to this forest for unrest. This can account for witnessing odd lights, noises and seeing heads floating among the trees. Certainly, several visitors have experienced mysterious rashes, burns, nausea, and unexplained loss of time. Not to mention the feeling of being watched and hearing unexplained voices.

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A large portion of the forest that is barren. People believe that this is where most paranormal activity is. But there’s also several springs that border the forest which can be a conduit for activity. How exciting is this!? Ghost Hunters and Paranormal Researchers visit the forest in hopes to find something here.

 
forest-oneThere was one documented sighting of a UFO in the 70s with a photo for proof, but some have not been able to be so lucky to see another as successfully. While the photo is pretty cool and such, the idea that there hasn’t been another sighting is possibly the only disappointment if to visit.

So, with the idea that you will be guaranteed some kind of experience when visiting this creepy, but awesome forest, would you go? I most definitely think it would be well worth the experience and great material for nightmares.

 

What is your favorite vacation destination? Let me know and if you have visited Hoia-Baciu Forest, I would definitely love to hear about it!