Tomorrow is Halloween, the eve of All Saints’ Day, which has devolved into a celebration of scary images of the dead. It’s a good time to clear up some chronic confusion about the tombs that one constantly encounters in the Catholic churches of Rome. Why are they so often covered with creepy images of skulls and bones?
You can’t walk through a historic church anywhere in Rome without running into lots and lots of tombs. Some contain the venerated remains of Catholic saints, but the majority are for ordinary Catholic sinners: clergy and religious, lay members of the nobility, the family members of donors to the church … you get the idea. And our faith teaches us that everyone will die someday, and while our souls will live on forever, our bodies will decay in the grave. As the liturgy for Ash Wednesday tells us, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
This is the primary reason why we find skulls, bones, and sometimes entire skeletons carved on many tombs. There is little point in obsessing about how we look, and spending endless, pointless hours fixated on the appearance of our hair, our face, and our figure. One of these days, it will all return to ashes and dust–and what’s left will be the soul, which in the end is all that really matters!
These skeletal images are not meant to depress or frighten anybody. Instead, they are intended as a reminder to us all of the need to make sure our priorities are in order. So when we walk past one of these eerie tombstones, let’s recall the need to keep first things first, and concentrate on improving our spiritual life–because the material life is eventually going to end.