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Crypts, Sepulchers & Sarcophagi ~ Oh My!

The keyboard didn't work out, nor did the time during my recent travels, so contrary to plans there were no blogs written. You can find little snippets and pictures here and there on my Facebook page, if you care to scroll through that, but at the risk of boring everyone, I would like to work backward and offer some insights into those 10 weeks of exploring Southeast Asia ... but not just yet ...

After traveling for nearly three months, with my suitcase still sitting in the hallway, death stepped in three times; one forewarned, one a shock and the third a friend's parent.

After months of Buddhist and Hindu temples with all the associated beliefs and mythologies, my mind is a jumble of karma, reincarnation, multiple gods, nature as God, one God/one life, fate and the lure of escaping it all for practical atheism. Now is not the time to go into that quagmire of emotions.

Instead I turned to memories of all the memorials and burial places visited in past decades. Concrete things, like huge pyramids with their grand sphinx guards, don't muddle the heart. A maze of burial crevices deep underground tickle the mind, without prompting tears. Places honoring the dead, and their individual stories, proved far easier to cope with.

In 2011, traveling through India's Golden Triangle, I was reminded that life doesn't always offer a happily-ever-after. In deep mourning over the death of Mumtaz Mahal, the Shah Jahan's favorite wife, he commissioned the construction of her mausoleum: The Taj Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal, was Shah Jahan's third wife and died giving birth to their fourteenth child while accompanying him on a war campaign.

Of all the mausoleums visited in my travels, this is the most exquisite. In true Persian style, there are no attempts to recreate Mumtaz Mahal's revered beauty. Instead, the artwork consists of intricate floral designs and elaborate geometric shapes carved into translucent white marble and inlaid with semi-precious stones like turquoise, jade, lapis lazuli and coral. Nobel Poet Laurette, Rabindranath Tagore, described it as "the tear-drop on the cheek of time."

In Italy, I've always found it more interesting to dive below ground. The Italians have their share of tomb covered floors and/or walls, but if you look, you can find entrances to honeycombs of crypts buried deep. In Siracusa, Sicily, nearly 20,000 burial chambers are carved out in the subterranean catacombs beneath the remains of the 6th century Basilica of St. John. Our guide took us beyond the velvet ropes, up a set of stairs, down another set of stairs and into a cave where we marveled at Byzantine wall art. He stopped us, took us deeper into an alcove. There stood a simple stone altar in front of a wall covered in fading depictions of 3rd century depictions of biblical stories. He claimed this to be one of the very first Christian churches, which bears out if historical stories are true, and St. Paul had preached on that spot.

While touring the ancient Christian crypts deep underground in Rome, our guide suggested the martyrdom of Christians was a misunderstanding. Apparently, the Romans did not understand communion. Both Christians and the cult of Mithras, a group symbolized by a man cutting the throat of a sacred bull, believed in honoring a sacrificial victim by drinking his blood then eating his flesh. That the communion was a symbolic act; the Christian's substituting wine and bread, and the Mithras cult slaughtering and eating a bull, not a human, was lost on the Romans. Bloody executions and fights to the death in the coliseum were all well and good, but symbolic cannibalism was beyond their ken.

Crypts are still in evidence and use today. My mother’s family, on her father’s side, ‘rest’ in a lawn crypt as my great-grandfather (or was it great-great-grandfather) was from New Orleans where the water table encourages burying above ground, rather than below.

In my beloved English churches, when not laid to rest beneath engraved slabs of granite, knights rest in raised sarcophagi, topped with life-size replicas of themselves dressed in full warrior dress. There is a realm of symbolism to the way they are laid out; if cross-legged they served on crusade, a dog at their feet meant loyalty/fidelity, a lion represented valor. One day I will investigate the poses and share my findings with you.

Stories of the dead visiting the living thrive in all cultures especially around the last days of October, and the first of November. There's All Saints Day, Day of the Dead and, of course, Halloween's predecessor, Samhain. In The Handfasting, Talorc the Bold opens a window and looks down on a Samhain celebration, fearful that Maggie's twin brother might take advantage of the night and coerce her to join him on the other side:

"Bonfires, to celebrate the eve of Samhain, backlit odd grotesque shapes of people covered in animal skins, some with horns perched upon their heads. Others dressed in their plaids, their faces and bodies painted to disguise against spirits who had free rein to roam the land this night. Honor the dead, but don’t let them take you back with them. That was the way of Samhain, when the spirit of those gone, those to come, walked among the people. "


Naturally, as they are what they are, The Lady Eleanor Mysteries have their share of deaths and burials. On a dark foggy night, an entire entourage make their way to a family crypt in Summerton. Of course, trouble ensues.

A funeral is interrupted in The Gatehouse. As was custom, the ceremony was held at night. Contrary to Regency custom, women attended. Sir Michael grouses, "Not right, women going to a funeral, ... Not for such delicate creatures, you know, putting a body in the ground. Rouses the emotions.”

We will all have to wait to see how death is portrayed in further Lady Eleanor Mysteries as she is on her way to the Far East where practices are quite different and views of the dead are … well … recurring.

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