Thursday, April 16, 2015

Day 573 - The dead of Palermo

In a recent adventure, my partner and I entered into the catacombs of Palermo. 

In short: It is an underground place with rib vault ceilings where in the year 1599 Capuchin monks began to lay to rest their deceased peers. At that time monks were embalming dead monks and the techniques were so successful that these dead monks turned into mummies. Once the secret was out to the public, wealthy people wanted to be preserved in much the same manner. For a price they were embalmed and put on display so that their living relatives could enter into the catacombs and recite Sunday prayers holding the deceased's hand. As long as relatives paid, the mummy was kept accessible. Over time an alleged number of 8000 mummies have accumulated in the catacombs of Palermo, where today tourists can enter and see the remains. Some mummies are quite well preserved and for that they are famous, for example baby Rosalia Lombardo who is about 100 years old by now but still looks like a perfectly sleeping baby. Most mummies are by far no longer recognisable. 

The mummies are completely exposed and displayed in the open. They are stacked everywhere, the majority however hangs from the walls.  Any tourist can look at a mummy eye to eye socket - they are less than 1metre away. The sheer number of classified mummies is very impressive. Endless corridors are filled with sections for virgins, professionals, priests and so forth. Many mummies wore their best clothes and their age can be told by the fashion they wear.

I walked into the place without expectation or imagination. We had walked quite a distance to get there (from the city centre) and I had no idea what the environment looked like. Entering into the catacombs was not anything special in the sense that I did not have an emotional reaction, but rather a strong physical sense of relation. Many of the mummies were partly turned to dust. Many still had the leathery skin mostly on their limbs, few had it on their faces. I experienced a sense of familiarity and maybe for the first time, a real sense of death without the typical emotion of fear of loss. Yet, the mummies weren't like the ones one encounters in a museum, this perception of "otherness" was curiously absent for me. In a museum setting there is a stark contrast between the dilapidating mummy and the slick museum environment. Mummies are usually visible behind glass, which separates the environment and makes it look more like a computer screen. Here in Palermo, there was no such slickness, the dust, the dirt, everything around the mummies was equally falling apart which made the scenario very realistic. Looking at my body, it made me aware that I was also falling apart, notwithstanding that it was my birthday. Overall though, I felt related to every single mummy and because most of the facial skin was gone, there was a point of equality from one mummy to the next since everyone had more or less a skull as a head. I noticed that individuality comes with a face because I realised that I was more likely to interpret the mummy when the facial skin was more intact. 

When I walked through the catacombs the utter futility of self-interest was staring me in the face, we are living in this life driven by self-interest. Emotions and feelings are the basis of self-interest. I imagined in how many ways each one of these mummies was driven to act and interact in the world based on their emotions, their attachments, their dreams and desires. When in the end all of it was for nothing as it has no intrinsic value, we leave nothing of value behind when we have a starting point of self-interest. The value of our life is that we are ONE POINT in the continuous living thread. One life that connects to all other lives and that one point of life must do everything in its power to create the best possible conditions for the other points of life. 

In discussion with my partner we were looking at the point of inheritance - what people pass on at the time of death. Parents pass stuff onto their children. Children are supposed to be grateful for that. What does passing on really mean though? It means that you created something for yourself and only because you can't use it anymore when you are done with living, you have to pass it on. In the case of parents it's not only at death, but also at birth because parents also pass on their beliefs, programs, ideas, limitations, and emotional constructs to their children. In essence we are constantly imposing our self interest to the next person around us. This is the value we have given to life which is the opposite of what life does in essence.

So how can we change this, how can we pass on and leave behind something that is alive and living? The answer is that we can change our point of reference for our creations, when we stop worrying about ourselves and create for others. When others, their well-being, their growth and living-expression becomes our concern, we not only step over our self-limitations but we actually connect to the source of life. What I experienced with the mummies of Palermo, their very presence and nearness connected me profoundly to the essence of life. 

As I walked out of the catacombs, I was wondering if my realisation is the reason why we keep the dead away from the living, because it would have been unthinkable to be this close to a dead body in other parts of Europe. There would be a myriad of reasons why we cannot be exposed to the dead in this way. I reckon it's because the dead can make us see what is real and what is not, and this could have a dramatic impact on our lives - so much so that we could change the way we relate to each other. 

I am grateful for having visited the catacombs of Palermo they have given me an unparalleled physical reference for the necessity of changing my reference point of creation from "self-interest" to "interest-for-all".


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