Impermanence and Your Fear of Death // Catacombs and Crypts

July 11-14

As part of our experience in Rome, we took a tour of catacombs and crypts. I think it may be a popular tour due to the gruesome nature of it all. However, it isn’t all that gruesome but was figuratively and literally deep.

This tour begs the tourist to ponder impermanence or the idea of their own death. I think I consider this just before landing in every aircraft I fly in, which means it’s going to happen more over the next year than ever before. Or will this inner demon finally be broken after riding trains in India? Anyway, this contemplation isn’t often that deep for me, it’s more along the lines of “I wonder if the landing gear deployed properly, and how will people behave once the under belly smashes into the tarmac?”  Maybe I’ve already found some peace, and the fear isn’t burning quite as bright as it does in some others.

How many of us are plagued by that fear? Not the mechanics of the plane, but of death? How does one come to peace with impermanence when there is so much here for us, everything we know to be real. I know some people have strong feelings about building a legacy, and what defines a legacy is personal and can come in a range of desires. Examples such as building a business bigger than oneself, adorning a building with their name, or building a strong and loving family that remembers them and carries their same love and values into new generations. Aren’t most of these desires simply signals of our fear of impermanence? I found this episode of Reboot Podcast very intriguing and fitting of many of the kinds of thoughts popping around my head lately. How Khe and Jerry discussed this idea of impermanence really stuck with me.

Jerry has a pronounced talent for bringing people to the edge of their fears and emotions. Like any fear, often there exists some sort of line that needs to be crossed. Aiming to break past some barrier that then provides the means for processing those emotions and fears. Jerry’s guest, Khe, found early success and has since pulled back and pivoted towards a new kind of life. One that I’m not certain he had a strong definition for before he chose to pivot. There is a small portion of me that is identifying with Khe and where he is at with his life journey. I found RadReads about a year ago while searching for reading lists to help inform mine for this coming year of travel. I’ve been keeping tabs on Khe’s journey since.

Back to the tour.

There were three stops, the first was the Catacombs of Domitilla, where we were taken on a winding and meandering tour of underground tunnels dug out of the volcanic Roman soil. They were damp but well-trodden by tourists and much more accommodating than the Cu Chi Tunnels we toured in Vietnam. The early Christians would essentially hide their dead in the catacombs as they were still an early cult. Many of the original martyrs were buried in catacombs and the catacombs remained a popular burial site as years went on because many wanted to be buried near the martyrs. In year 380 AD, Christianity became a state religion and burial in the catacombs would slowly decline.

Our tour guide, Marco, described Rome as layers and layers of lasagna. He said Romans are lazy and tend to reuse buildings, as in build atop old foundations and structures. This layering would hide history as Rome built up, forgetting the history as centuries pile on top of each other. This creates a top down layering for most of Rome. Meaning the layer we have access to now is obviously the newest, and as you work your way down you’re seeing older and older layers. Common flooding of the Tiber and the silt it would distribute meant that Rome was constantly growing over the years which aided in the layering.

The catacombs are inverted, the top most layers were the oldest, and the newest is furthest down. Some of the bottom layers of the catacombs we visited are still sealed. The first few layers we toured were cleaned out – by barbarians, raiders, vandals, and early archeologists. But building these was no small task. First, you were an enemy of Rome being a Christian. At the time some of these started, Christians were seen as a crazy and disruptive cult. Physically, you needed to dig shafts into the volcanic roman soil, lower you and your primitive tools by rope into the shaft and begin carving by oil lamp. No ventilation or safety measures included carting all the excavated bits out by rope and bucket. The site is now managed by the Vatican and has a brochure with decent information.

The catacombs we were touring were located on land given to the Christians by a wealthy noble within Roman society as she had married her cousin, a consul of the emperor, Titus Flavius Clemens. Still, this assistance to the Christians would eventually lead to her own death and adding Flavia Domitilla to martyrdom. She created a legacy as her name still adorns the Catacombs of Domitilla. This site has 150,000 burial sites within it, along with an ancient earth sunken basilica, and an early fresco of the last supper.

Bummed this one is blurry, this was a sneak shot at one of the frescos adorning a sarcophogus.

One of the entry points for the original catacombs.
Inside the basilica

As artifacts were found, they would plug them back into other areas of the building. Here artifacts from early catacombs were taken and adorn newer sections within the basilica.

Gives a new feeling to the origin of sarcophagus – flesh-eating flesh-consuming.

The Basilica of San Clemente was our second stop. The building has three main layers, and at one time an Irish priest was thought to be going crazy as he pulled up the floor and started digging due to an incessant sound of water trickling within the basilica. With this, he enabled the discovery of a pagan church from around 4 AD, which had a Christian church built on top of it in the 4th century, and then the present day basilica from before 1100. For a deeper look, Wikipedia has some good pictures and information. The interior was full of scaffolding, so even those of us on the tour were holding up their phones with a picture what the altar and the décor behind it look like. Also, this is where Cyrillic was formed, making this church have very close ties to the origin of the Orthodox Church.

Scaffolding blocking our view
Ornate ceilings, Wikipedia has better images
This is in layer two of the church


The last visit was to the crypts of the Capuchin Monks, who had a very specific way of honoring their dead. Using the bones of the deceased they build crypts and burial sites along with decorations, clocks, and lot more.

The order began in 1520 and had some very strict orders for behavior. This was also the strictest place on dress codes we’ve experienced thus far. Despite this, we were a little taken aback at seeing a monk in the courtyard sitting down to speak with a woman who had clearly visible shoulders and knees. Scandalous! We missed most of the museum expanding the history of the order due to time constraints.

Lack of pictures and quality pictures is due to this whole tour being a no photography allowed event. Glad I got a few though.

naughty monk

By Daniel Hatke

The author was born and raised in Indiana. After graduating from Purdue University he worked in the asset management industry in New York City. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship. Currently, he is fueling his curiosities through taking time off for extended travel and experiences in Europe and Asia, as chronicled here.