Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/The Convent of the Capuchins
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The Convent of the Capuchins
By Arthur Searle
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TRAVELERS to Rome, endowed with a reasonable measure of that taste for the repulsive which is natural to our paradoxical race, have long been accustomed to include in their round of sights a Capuchin convent, noted only for the singular manner in which the bones of its deceased inmates have been made to serve as emblems of mortality to the devout. The published accounts of the spectacle here presented are too generally familiar for quotation. A letter before me, dated in November, 1821, will furnish a description which will at least have the merit of not having already appeared in print.
"I went to the cemetery of the Capucins" (the writer adopts the French spelling of the name), where we found, in the cellar of the convent, forty graves in the loose earth, always occupied by Capucins in their usual dress, without coffins. When a new man dies, they take up him who has been longest in the earth, coat and all, and place him on his feet in a niche left in the walls of bones, several feet thick, which ornament the rooms. The niches being also always full, they are obliged to make room here, too, for the new-comer by breaking up and scraping the skeleton which has stood there longest, and adding his bones to the different arches and festoons which are gracefully distributed on all sides. The convent is not very full just now, so that the poor fellows rest on the average seven or eight years in their graves; formerly they were often dug up in two or three."
The earth affording this limited privilege is said to have been originally brought from Jerusalem, so that quarters in it were regarded as peculiarly desirable by the originators of the custom just described; but no doubt an equally important reason for establishing the practice was the desire to edify the living monks by the exhibition of the remains of their predecessors. Heretic sight-seers had not then begun to invade the city. If, however, the possibility of their visits had been foreseen, it might well have been supposed that the silent warnings of the dead might be more effective in their conversion than the arguments of living preachers.
It will hardly be thought that any mere secular sermon may also be preached upon the text furnished by this assemblage of bones. But we have here one solution of the problem, so much discussed in our times, of discovering the proper method for the disposal of dead bodies. We need not allow the various offensive circumstances connected with these Capuchin interments to conceal the main principle upon which they are conducted. The corpses are left to rest some years, without coffins, in dry, sheltered earth, before any step is taken toward their final disposition. If we consider these facts alone, we shall have no difficulty in perceiving that the chief objections to our common funeral usages, and to those substitutes for them which are most frequently-suggested, have been met in advance by the Capuchins. The cellar, the standing skeletons, and the festoons of bones are not essential features of the method of interment which they have adopted.
What, in fact, are the causes which have brought coffins for the dead, with all their disagreeable and dangerous consequences, into such general use? Undoubtedly, our natural wishes that the bodies of our friends should be protected, and not left exposed to accident or violence of any kind. Interments without coffins in open cemeteries will hardly be acceptable to civilized people, however much from a sanitary-point of view they may be preferable to the customary method. It is needless to engage in a discussion of the repulsive incidents which must or may attend either the use or the abandonment of coffins. We have had them unpleasantly set forth time and again, and may assume at once that all of them are, if possible, to be avoided. The ground ought not to be poisoned either more or less; and we have not room for so wide a separation of one corpse from another as to make our interments quite harmless.
It may here, of course, be objected that the earth is really spacious enough for all our wants, and that crowded cemeteries are the result of heedlessness, not of necessity. But in this remark there is no more truth than in the commonplace answer to Malthusian arguments, that there are plenty of thinly settled districts still to be occupied. Space there is, no doubt, both for the living and for the dead, if they could be conveniently carried to it; but there is often too little space where people find themselves obliged to live and die. Crowds are a necessity of progress, it seems; at all events, the art of getting on well in solitude has not yet been discovered, and we are required by nature to find ways of helping our neighbors where they are, rather than of sending them away. At least, let us find ways to avoid injuring them.
Provision must be made in the neighborhood of large towns for numerous interments. The land available for the purpose is limited by the wants of the living, who can not afford to leave large tracts unoccupied. To make cemeteries serve the purpose of parks and pleasure-grounds would be certainly indecorous and probably unwholesome. On the whole, it is scarcely possible that, under existing circumstances, our burying-grounds should not be overcrowded.
For the inhabitants of maritime districts it has been suggested that the sea, at a sufficient distance from shore, might serve a good purpose as a cemetery. But the practical objections to this plan, resulting from occasional periods of stormy weather, and from the impossibility of recovering corpses wanted for identification or for medical examination, are sufficient to condemn it. It would, moreover, be disagreeable in most cases to the feelings of surviving relatives and friends, and acceptable only when, as at present in many cases of death at sea, it is the only practicable method.
Most of the objections just enumerated apply with equal or still greater force to the more frequently discussed method of cremation. It is not desirable, either from a legal and medical or from a sentimental point of view, that a body should be destroyed soon after it has ceased to live. To effect this destruction in a thorough and decorous manner by burning is expensive, if attempted without complicated apparatus, the original cost of which must, in any case, be considerable. We may neglect more remote and perhaps fanciful objections, such as, for example, that the world's natural stock of ammonia might be seriously reduced in the course of centuries, if the process of decay were extensively replaced by that of complete combustion.
After reviewing the various substitutes for burial which have been tried or suggested, it happens with most minds that none of them seem on the whole to be improvements. It remains, then, to find a form of burial which will accomplish its purpose effectively and without offense or danger to the living. This form must, accordingly, be such that the earth employed for the purpose of burial shall be free from moisture or any other hindrance to rapid and inoffensive decomposition, and entirely separated from the ground through which the rainfall which feeds our springs and lakes is to pass. The corpses must be buried without coffins, and still be protected from disturbance or defacement by animals of any kind. The only means of securing these ends is apparently to have all interments made in dry earth contained in secure and properly ventilated buildings.
It is, of course, impossible that under such a system the same place should not, as a general rule, be used repeatedly for successive interments. This is mainly a question of expense. In most cases, after the course of nature had thoroughly removed all that could decay, there could be no objection to the disinterment of the skeleton. Cremation would now be a comparatively cheap method of preserving the remains from any treatment which might be held to be indecorous, and the passage of time would ordinarily have removed all occasion for the natural feeling which makes us shrink from doing any violence to a recent corpse. The earth used for the interments might, of course, be thoroughly heated at long intervals, to destroy any accumulation in it of organic products; or, indeed, unless the expense were considered a foolish one, charcoal might take the place of earth, and be ultimately burned with the bones contained in it.
A principal advantage of this method of interment is that it may be employed at any time by individuals without waiting for general adoption. A water-tight tomb may be constructed without very great expense in any ordinary cemetery, and, if the ground around it is suitably drained, may be used for a long while without fear that it is a menace to the health of the community, as all ordinary graves and tombs undoubtedly are. The most economical way of providing sheltered graves, however, would probably be to erect for the purpose buildings of considerable size, within which space might be hired in perpetuity or for limited terms of years. It is possible that such buildings might stand at no great distance from others without harm, under suitable regulations for the interments to be made in them. If constant attendance were provided for, the fear of premature interment which distresses some people might be to a great extent removed; and in any case the protection of the corpses might thus be efficiently secured. Memorial tablets, which might finally be removed to any place selected for the reception of the harmless ashes, would be a welcome substitute for the clumsy monuments which disfigure our present cemeteries; and, without any of the offensive circumstances attending the interments of the Capuchin convent which have served for the text of this article, we might apparently secure their substantial advantages of economy of space and moderate rapidity in effecting the true purposes of burial.