Poor Little Souls: The Fontanelle Cemetery and the Cult of the Dead

/ by Sharmila Cohen

Despite the sweltering heat that is typical of southern Italy in late July, we decided to walk to the cemetery – it didn’t look so far away on the map, and we’d get the chance to see more of the city that way, anyway. With the midday sun beating down on our backs, we trekked up and down the winding city streets for what seemed like an eternity without passing any noteworthy points of interest. The sweat glistened on our foreheads, as we had finally reached the end of our journey—a paved driveway leading into the side of a hill. We double- and triple-checked our maps; there was no turning back after all we’d been through to get there. This had to be the place. After summoning all of our courage, we decided to ask for directions, but alas, there was no one in sight. A voice told us, keep going, you’re almost there. And then, thank god – or perhaps thank the dead, but we’ll get to that later – we spotted a small brown sign at the end of that driveway that read Cimitero delle Fontanelle.


The cool air inside of the dark, cavernous space provided a much needed respite from the summer heat – one might even go as far as to call it a ghostly chill. We must have been there at an unpopular hour, since we were the only people inside – us and thousands and thousands of neatly stacked human bones. Toward the back of the cemetery, there were a few windows, allowing stark rays of ominous light into the otherwise dimly-lit space. In front of them, the black silhouette of a man – a statue contrasted against the bright squares of light behind him. The dark, empty eye sockets of the dead stared back at us from wherever we stood. At some point, we realized that not every skull in the cemetery was equal. Some of them had accumulated small treasures, like rosaries or candles or were even housed inside of special boxes. None of the bones had been formally identified, meaning that these gifts were not left behind by their kin. No, these meaningful tokens had been provided by the members of a somewhat controversial cult, and this cemetery is their main place of worship.


After facing revolts, famines, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and war, it’s no surprise that Naples has long had a special relationship with death. That relationship is particularly exemplified in the cult of the anime pezzentelle (poor little souls), also known as the cult of the dead. Members of the cult believe that they can communicate with the souls that once belonged to the skulls in the cemetery. In exchange for special favors, they would pray for the souls in an attempt to help alleviate their suffering in purgatory. Believers perform rituals that involve selecting and cleaning a skull, placing it on top of an embroidered handkerchief, decorating it with candles and flowers, and then placing a rosary around its neck. The bones were never given tombstones, as they were thought to prevent the souls from appearing in dreams, which was considered the only means of communication between the living and the dead. Once the ritual is done, believers wait for the soul to contact them. They claim that the souls visit them in their dreams to reveal their true identities. In this way, these believers provide a unique spiritual existence to these anonymous physical remains.


By contrast, the day before our visit to the cemetery, we’d taken a day trip to nearby Pompeii, the ancient Roman city famously destroyed and buried in volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. The inhabitants who were unable to flee in time were immediately killed and then decomposed over the years, leaving behind human-shaped voids in the layers of ash. Those voids were filled with plaster, revealing the physical forms of the people that once lived there. In essence, this experience of the dead is entirely opposite to that of the Fontanelle Cemetery. Rather than the complete anonymity of the bones in Naples, these people are clearly located in time and space, as they were frozen where they stood on the exact date of the volcanic eruption, often inside their own homes. Conversely, rather than offering them a new sense of identity, the living have offered the dead here new physical manifestations in their complete absence.


At Pompeii, we walked past clusters of these plaster people scattered throughout different locations in the city, but our tour guide primarily focused on what we could learn about the daily life of its residents. As you likely assumed, in the cemetery we were solely surrounded by death. The cave is filled with the remains of thousands of corpses, with some sources citing numbers as high as 400,000. This vast collection of bones began in the 16th century to accommodate growing concerns about finding space for cemeteries within the city walls. The numbers grew in 1656, when thousands of anonymous plague victims were added to the people buried there. Reportedly, the cave was flooded late in the 17th century, washing the human remains out onto the street. The bones were returned to the cave, at which point it became the unofficial final resting place of those who could not afford a proper burial. The last known major addition to the cemetery followed the cholera epidemic in 1837. After that, in 1872, Father Gaetano Barbati had the haphazardly-buried skeletal remains exhumed, cleaned, and catalogued, leaving them in makeshift crypts, boxes, and on wooden racks. Freshly organized and on display, the skulls would then be able to take on the role of devotional objects.


The cult grew larger and smaller over the years, peaking at times of crisis, and especially during and after wartime. Although the Catholic Church had long considered the cult unacceptable, and their beliefs to be superstition and heathen fetishism, the followers carried on for many years. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Church officially took steps to put a stop to the cult, when the Archbishop of Naples, Corrado Ursi, decreed that: “Expressions of cult addressed to human remains” were “arbitrary, superstitious, and therefore inadmissible.” At that point, the cemetery was closed and the cult of the anime pezzentelle was suppressed. After restoration work that began in 2002 was complete, it finally reopened to the public in 2010. While the cult of the dead is not nearly as active as it once was, signs of its existence still appear up at the cemetery from time to time.

Sharmila Cohen

lives in Berlin, where she initially moved on a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate poetry in translation and now works as a freelance writer, translator, and editor. She is a co-founding editor of the translation press Telephone Books. Her work can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Circumference,and Epiphany, among other places.