Crypts, Chandeliers, and a Door Cracked Open

Crypts, Chandeliers, and a Door Cracked Open

The chandeliers dangled mere yards from the crypt.

They hung from branches draped over a courtyard, with a view of vineyards beyond. A little stone wall ran a circle around what would become a grand al fresco dining room and then, in its final encore, a dance floor.

This is not a scene from a Hallmark movie, but the real memory I have of a certain day last October.

The wedding was set for that evening. Yes, it was Tuscany. Yes, outdoors. All the trappings, and the corresponding drama of packing just the right dress with just the right undergarments was the theme of September, until the big day when I actually put things in suitcases and flew away. Suddenly it was October 8, and I was watching a frenetic crew suspend chandeliers at equal heights.

I sat a distance away, on a patio couch, and observed.

The chandeliers will preside tonight over the beginnings of a new human marriage, and I am strangely homesick, I write.

I am journaling.

There is so much beauty here, and yet we are steps away from the crypt of a little chapel built by people long dead.

All the planning to get there, and now nothing but a raging insufficiency was rising in my chest. Something about that tomb was unsettling, displacing.

The compound where we stayed was Borgo Casabianca, where a prominent Italian family of lore built a vineyard which then became an abbey where monks used to press olive oil. The family crypt is still intact under a small, spidery chapel. My son and I stumbled upon it that afternoon while exploring (you can imagine the delight), and we found the door ajar.

Drew took video of me creaking the metal to open, Hollywood cobwebs stretching inward. There were no bodies in the shelves on either side of the cave-like room, which was a real let-down. We shuddered and laughed and slammed the door shut.

Over the doorway was a frieze with the inscription “Requiem Eternum,” and a depiction of a serpent swallowing an hourglass whole, even as the hourglass has sprouted wings.

So not only is Time being gruesomely devoured, but it is also trying to fly away, I write, watching the chandeliers slowly rotating to a stop as they settle into their mid-air places.

(If you’re wondering, this was the same trip I wrote about with the bone chapels of Rome. The Italians love a good hourglass metaphor for impending doom.)

I keep writing —

And so we must pause. We must stop when we can in the eternal moments we are somehow able to seize, and smile at anticipatory chandeliers.

Last week, I learned of the death of a man with whom I used to work. He was 40-something and left behind a devoted wife and two teenagers. We were not close, just asteroids in the same gravitational belt, loosely connected by time and social pulls. He was lost in a terrible car accident. Random. Fluke-like. When you looked back at his Facebook feed, all the smiles and silliness of his years seem totally overshadowed by what appears, this week at least, to be the capstone of his life: tragedy. How will his wife look back at their wedding day? Will any of its sweetness be spoiled knowing how soon it will end?

These celebrations we have, these smiles – they seem so ephemeral up against the realities of grief and ever-encroaching loss. And yet we are told in Scripture that this is precisely upside down, that death and loss are actually the filaments, the shadows, of the real and permanent things.

The chandeliers are the permanent things, we are told. The party is what lasts, not the crypt. And love is the permanent thing, we are told. Not even the human marriage, or even death itself. Beauty and connection pass through death into something even more gorgeous and unifying, into something realer than the most vivid memories of wedding days or vacation sunsets. This is the embodied teaching of Jesus, who demonstrated the coming truth of it by his actual death and resurrection. His tomb was also an empty crypt. We will spend next week singing this Easter hope in our church services.

And yet, sitting there in the sweet open air of Italy, watching the wedding tables being assembled and the flagstone swept and the chandeliers hung, I realized I was tired. Sad. My body and my face were about to be made beautiful, but inside I was feeling more like the tomb I had just explored. I was both the beauty and the bereaved, the smiling and the sapped, the hopeful and the hungry. I could see God’s glory on display in every olive leaf strewn on the ground and in the rituals the bride was undertaking to glow like a heavy moon, but I was still overwhelmed by a homesickness that wasn’t geographical. Sometimes you must travel to realize how deep the homesickness really goes, or just get that fateful text or run across that social media post that punches you in the gut with reminders that Requiem Eternum — eternal rest — has come to somebody you used to know. Someone has gone home without you, and that loss just feels so solid and permanent, realer than any gossamer bouquet or glass of champagne.

Just bring in the true, indestructible party already! I want to scream.

The final, unfading beauty!

The permanent, undying love!

And let’s dance!

Easter wouldn't be Easter without both a tomb plunged in darkness and angels draped in sunshine. One follows the other. Easter is Easter because of both realities, and this mystery of beauty and death carries on in our lives, too.

This week, I’m trying to remember that even when it feels cruel or temporary, beauty is the outline of an unquenchable blaze behind a closed door that is cracking open and will never be shut.


Julie K. Rhodes the author of the newest book, Chronic Grace, lives in Fort Worth, TX, with her husband Gordon and two teenage kids Drew and Maddie, plus pug Eloise ("The Eyeballs."). She performs regularly on stages all over Dallas-Fort Worth area and has multiple film and commercial credits.

You may also contact Julie at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule her for speaking or leadership engagements.