In any dense metropolis, prime real estate is located up high where there’s light, plenty of space, and a view. Big Italian cities are no different. The rich live on hills above town, or in penthouse atticos with a terrace. Upper classes want the same thing when they die. While graveyards in the US tend to be flat and democratic, cemeteries in Italy are as varied as the cities of the living. There is desirable property, made up of spacious plots with breathtaking panoramas, and lower, crowded ghettos. On the scenic lots, families with money buy elaborate marble mausoleums for their deceased. Downtown, meanwhile, simple granite tombstones are crammed so close together that the flowers someone brought for her aunt’s tomb spill over onto her next grave neighbour. My husband’s uncle, Zio Peppe, asked me recently if I was interested in going to the cemetery of the Fontanelle in one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Naples. I had heard macabre things about the place. It had no “chic” lots. There was no tomb with a view. Created in 1656 for the victims of a plague that wiped out half the city’s inhabitants, the “cemetery” is an immense cave dug into the tufa rock. Piled in it are the bones of 40,000 people, most of them poor Neapolitans who succumbed to the plague of 1656 or the cholera epidemic of 1836. I hesitated. I’m not squeamish when it comes to skeletons, but still…wouldn’t it be more pleasant to see some of the Renaissance masterpieces at the Capodimonte museum? “Come on,” he encouraged, winking. “We’ll ask if you can adopt a skull.”

Halloween, Neapolitan style

The practice of adopting a skull, he told me, began in the 19th century. Because the bones in the massive cave belong to anonymous people who had no family to look after their remains, the craniums were considered “orphans” in need of care. So families would adopt a capuzzella, a little head. They would clean the dust off, bring flowers and gifts, and pray to the spirit of the deceased. In exchange, the skull would protect them and their loved ones. My son is 10 years old and hates sightseeing. But as soon as I said I was going to see the skulls of 40,000 dead people and possibly adopt one, he was all over it. Zio Peppe led us through the gaping, mildewy mouth of the cave. Votive candles flickered, and we could see mountains of skulls on either side of the passage. Most of them were covered by powdery dust and connected by intricate spider webs. Some (the ones that had landed a good adoptive family, I guess) were housed in miniature marble mausoleums, while others were encased in glass. If there had been an orange jack ‘o lantern,  I would have sworn this place was rigged for Halloween. At the end of the walkway, two altars with presumably important skulls were displayed prominently. Modern photos had been propped up next to the two capuzzelle mausoleums: one of a hefty 1960’s housewife, another of a young ragazzo with a Napoli soccer jersey. Other objects that had been left by devoted skeleton protectors were: throat lozenges, chapstick, combs, and coins. There was even an unused ticket for the Naples subway, in case the skull needed to hightail it to another part of the city. “Look at the letter, Mommy,” my son called out. It was on lined notebook paper, and had been propped up on a cranium that was well maintained. It was dated October, 2010, and read: Dear skull, we want to get married but don’t have work. Will you help us find jobs? Another note written on a yellow post-it nearby said that Uncle Ciccio was sick, and requested the grazia of his health. We also found thank you notes. Aunt Rosaria is well! Thank you, little head! Apparently, when the skeletons were treated with respect and love, they returned favors.

lucky sweat, lucky skull

A big sculpture made entirely of human femurs marked the deviation to another pathway, also lined on both sides with mounds of skeletons. At the end of it was a head that looked nothing like the others. While the other skulls were dusty, opaque and brittle, this one was shiny white. Several plastic bead necklaces had been looped over it, and it was surrounded by gifts of makeup: foundation, lipstick, nail polish. This skull was obviously a woman, and needed to be made up and accessorized. “Her name is capa che suda,” Zio Peppe told me. Sweaty head. “Legend has it that she continues to sweat, and that’s why the skull is so shiny. If you touch it, your hand will be wet and you’ll have good luck.” Now, sweaty head was located a good three feet behind the rusty chain that presumably kept people out.  My son looked at me, clearly wanting to touch it. There were no guards in sight. I was torn: should we straddle the chain and go for it, or respect the rules? The devoted who had brought the offerings had obviously hopped the fence. But they knew that it was worth it, they believed in sweaty head. Ours was simple curiosity. Would the skeleton know that? Would it bring bad luck instead of good? “We are not going to piss off any skeletons today, sweetheart.” I told my boy. He kicked up some tufa stone, annoyed.

The tradition of adopting a skull

Zio Peppe knew the history of the cemetery but not much about the modern day capuzzelle  ritual. So on our way out we stopped at the information booth. The toothless ticket seller was the only person around, and I asked him about the leaving of gifts, the adopting of skulls. Who does it? When do they do it? Is it a family affair? His response surprised me. “Nobody leaves anything here. Nothing’s been left since the 1950’s, when there was the cult of the capuzzelle.” But what about the recent letters, the subway tickets? He clicked his tongue and wagged his finger no like a kindergarten teacher. “I open this place in the morning, and I close it at night. Nobody comes in here except the people on guided tours. And we make sure they don’t leave anything.” With that, he closed his little glass window and went back to playing Candy Crush on his smartphone. We would just have to come back at night, I decided, when the place was “closed”. My son suggested October 31st. OK, I told him, but next time let’s bring offerings. We’ve got plenty of little gadgets from McDonald’s happy meals that the skulls might like. And I’ve got lots of out-of-date lipstick. Not that we were ready to adopt, but who knew? Getting one of those little heads on your side couldn’t hurt.

Did you appreciate this story? It was written by Katherine Wilson, author of the book "Only in Naples", when you will read it you will be enchanted by other tales about Neapolitan places, tastes and traditions seen with the attentive and curious gaze of a wife and writer from the U. S. A.