Atop the Via Veneto in Rome sits one of the strangest – and most macabre – displays of baroque architecture dating to the 17th century. The aptly named “bone church,” or Capuchin Church of St. Mary of the Conception, has for centuries captured the intrigue of believers and skeptics alike, if only for its idiosyncrasies. Even the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne found amusement in the bone church, capturing its peculiarity in his novel, the Marble Faun. In his book, the narrator fittingly captures the church’s interior: “In the side walls of the vaults are niches where skeleton monks sit or stand, clad in the brown habits that they wore in life, and labelled with their names and the dates of their decease. Their skulls look out from beneath their hoods, grinning … As a general thing … these frocked and hooded skeletons seem to take a more cheerful view of their position, and try with ghastly smiles to turn it into a jest.”
Whether he intended to or not, Hawthorne intimates sound Catholic teaching on mortality. Christians can laugh in the face of death. Saint Paul certainly did: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” It’s only natural to weep; indeed, it’s important and necessary. The Lord himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. And the Book of Ecclesiastes warns us against curtailing our sadness too early, instead abiding by the natural order of creation, that there’s an appointed time for everything: a time to weep, and a time to laugh. But believers in the Resurrection see death as an unequal player, unmatched by the King of Kings in the game of life.
Lovers of God believe in the fulfillment of Christ’s promise of eternal life because they have been baptized into the death of the Lord, who, St. Paul reminds us, “dies no more. Death no longer has power over him.” The temptation to despair, which lurks deep within the devil’s handbook of fear, finds no resting place in the heart of the Christian who believes in the victory won for him by the Lord of life. So, yes, we mourn because we miss our loved ones. But we can also laugh at death, because it has no power over Christ, or the members of his Body who love and serve him.
In November, the Church begs Heavenly intercession for all the faithful departed, that their dour faces under the pain of purgatory might widen quickly into smiles of everlasting joy. They shall laugh at and rejoice in death, for it secures their passage to meet the Lord of life. But remembering death also serves an important lesson for the living: we shouldn’t be cavalier toward death, either. Above the deceased friars in the Roman “bone church,” an eerie epithet warns visitors: “What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will become.” Perhaps that’s why the saints daily kept skulls on their desktops , to remember that each soul must meet its Maker in judgment. Memento mori. Remember death.