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Mocking Death

October 31st, 2022 | 5 min read

By Cort Gatliff

A few weeks ago, my two-year-old daughter and I were out enjoying one of the first crisp afternoons of autumn with a walk around our neighborhood. We turned a corner, and suddenly she stopped and pointed to a house down the street. “It’s scary!” she yelled. I looked in the direction her little finger was pointing to see what had frightened her. A giant, inflatable skull sat on a neighbor’s front lawn, gently swaying in the wind. A sure sign that spooky season had arrived.

We crossed the street to put as much distance between us and the skull as possible. As we kept walking, though, we soon encountered a fake graveyard with puns (e.g., “Ben Better,” “Dustin Ash”) etched onto the tombstones, a pair of life-sized skeletons enjoying beers on Adirondack chairs, and a skeletal family of four walking their skeletal dog. Wherever we went, death seemed to follow.

Many Christians have mixed feelings about Halloween, and these kinds of decorations are part of the reason why. Dressing up as Superman or Snow White and collecting prodigious amounts of candy is all well and good. But for some, the macabre lawn ornaments cross the line from harmless fun to a celebration of death and darkness. We worship the God of life and light, after all, so it’s easy to see why someone might conclude these seasonal displays are at best in poor taste and at worst contrary to the Christian faith.

But perhaps there’s another way for followers of Jesus to interpret — and even learn to appreciate — the death décor that surrounds us this time of year. Long before suburbanites started littering their lawns with plastic craniums every October, Christians were adorning their art, tombs, and places of worship with death imagery — especially skulls. These grim symbols that pervade the Christian tradition are strange, sobering, sometimes quite funny, and deeply theological.

Take, for example, the skulls often found in portrayals of the crucifixions. The first time I noticed this recurring motif was while viewing Andrea Mantegna’s The Crucifixion in the Louvre. My eyes were first drawn to Jesus’ emaciated body, but after a few minutes I looked down and noticed a skull among the rubble at the base of the cross. I assumed this was a nod to Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” but the imagery carries a more profound meaning.

Church tradition holds that the place of Christ’s crucifixion is also the place of Adam’s burial. The skull, then, belongs to the first man, the one through whom sin and death entered the world. The cross on which Jesus, the second Adam, defeated sin and death stands over and above the mortal remains, victorious and redemptive.

Skulls in Christian art usually function as part of the memento mori tradition, a reminder that no matter what our station in life, death inevitably comes for us all. Puritan tombstones in New England provide some of the most memorable examples of this artform. In these colonial-era churchyards you’ll find, among other images, carvings of hour glasses symbolizing the unceasing passage of time, and the death’s head, an occasionally menacing but often goofy-looking skull with wings. While our modern sensibilities may find these depictions off-putting (outside of the month of October, of course), these symbols of mortality called the living to contemplate their end — not in order to cause fear and anxiety but to encourage wisdom, repentance, and faith in Jesus.

There are countless other examples, but on a recent trip to Rome, my wife and I experienced firsthand one of the most striking instances of Christians turning human remains into art. Fresh off our overnight flight and jet-lagged to the point of debilitating fatigue, we made our way to Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a 17th-century Roman Catholic church. Beneath this unassuming house of worship lies one of Rome’s lesser-known attractions: the Capuchin Crypts.

The crypts are made up of six small chapels featuring the bones of some four thousand Capuchin friars arranged in elaborate displays from floor to ceiling. I had read about these crypts, but nothing really prepares you to be surrounded by so many skulls (not to mention vertebrae, pelvises, etc.). The space is dimly lit and deathly quiet, which makes the spectacle all the more eerie. But after a few minutes — I don’t know how else to say this — you just kind of get used to the bones. And at this point, you can begin to take in the message these chapels were intended to communicate.

The first room, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, features a skeleton with a scythe in one hand and the scales of judgment in the other. “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be,” a sign reads in multiple languages. This is classic memento mori, reminding all who pass by that their time is running short. There seems to be little hope found here. Next is the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, followed by the Crypt of the Pelvises and Crypt of the Skulls. There’s a strange sort of beauty and elegance to these displays, and you can sense the thoughtfulness that went into each design.

But it was the final chapel, the Crypt of the Resurrection, that moved me to the point of tears. Like the other crypts, there are fragments of human skeletons everywhere. In this one, though, the bones create a frame, and within that frame hangs a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the space of six rooms, viewers are taken on a theological journey from the fearsome warning of the judgment that awaits us to the sure hope of the resurrection. In this light, the meaning of the bone displays becomes clear. Even as we stand literally surrounded by death, we have nothing to fear. The one called the resurrection and the life, the one who holds the keys to Death and Hades, is with us and for us.

A sign at the crypt invites viewers to imagine the Capuchin friars meditating on the hope of the resurrection and mocking death as they arrange the dry bones of their brethren. I think of these crypts and these friars now as I walk through my neighborhood and see (fake) skeletons displayed in ridiculous poses. Ridiculous, as in deserving of ridicule and mockery, preposterous. Far from being a celebration of death, these Halloween decorations are opportunities to reflect on the truth of the gospel: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ has rendered our most feared foe the butt of the joke. They function like the Riddikulus spell in Harry Potter, turning our greatest fear into something laughable. Although we still suffer under the curse of death — and the suffering is indeed immense — through our tears we can defiantly, and with hope, join the Apostle Paul’s taunts, saying, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

As far as I know, until our walk around the neighborhood that afternoon, my daughter had never seen a skull. Even so, her initial reaction was exactly right: death is scary. It’s the greatest enemy, a thief whose shadow haunts every day of our lives. But I don’t want to teach her to fear death. I want to teach her that even though she’ll encounter death, we follow the one who conquered death, and that because of him it will never have the final word. I want to teach her to laugh.

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