National Geo Photo.
Given that I spent much of 2010 dwelling on death and attempting to face it in a healthy manner, I could not turn down the opportunity to visit the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily that same year. The catacombs were established in 1599 to accommodate the burial of Capuchin monks but soon other members of the community desired to end up here, embalmed, preserved, and positioned in this unique manner. The last body to be embalmed was two year old Rosalia Lombardo. The Doctor who embalmed her died shortly after, taking with him the specifics of the process. What struck me though, was that it was blindingly obvious that no matter how good the preservation efforts, these bodies would eventually decay. I'm not entirely sure what the devout were hoping to achieve by being buried here but I doubt it involved being a freak show for macabre obsessed tourists such as myself. In saying that, and despite the wrenching in my gut, I felt it was a valuable experience, a gentle slap in the face and a stern reminder, that this is the inevitable destination of the vessel that carries our 'self.' Frankly, it was somewhat liberating of an experience. I do know, I'd choose a Tibetan sky burial over this any day. Or even Hunter S Thompson style - blown to smithereens out of a cannon. I do think I want my remains to be pecked away by other living creatures or exploded into countless pieces into the sky. Spread me thin and let me return to everything. I'd dread to be persevered and displayed in a slow but steady state of not-so-eternal decay.
After the visit to the catacombs, we hiked along a remote cliff-top down to a hidden Mediterranean cove, with crystal clear waters, populated by an abundance of fish and even an octopus. I swam out to a rocky outcropping and scaled up a cliff in my bare feet. I cut myself on the sharp rocks but the upcoming dive looked worth the pain. As I stood on the edge of the twenty foot high or so cliff, preparing to dive, I realized it had been a long time since I'd jumped off something so high. I was much older now, stiffer, heavier, not as confident, not as reckless, not as immortal. I briefly contemplated climbing back down but I knew I'd struggle over that decision in between mosquito bites, later that night. And so I jumped. I tried to be graceful. I projected myself into the sky, arms like wings, slowly arcing over my head with the trajectory of my fall line, until I grasped my hands and locked them over my head. I punctured the calm blue water and dove deep. Whooommph. A quick underwater somersault and I quickly swam for the distant surface. Back above water, I confirmed that I was still alive. Not that it really mattered.
"The Two worlds are divided by a little opening, and life and death were never so united."- From 'Sepulchers,' a poem about the catacombs by Ippolito Pindemonte.