A large cypress tree arched over the graves, and a few
clouds the color of peaches. The horizon glowed. The Neapolitan
sun hadn’t yet begun her climb. Gina Falcone surveyed
the newest additions beneath the burlap on her cart.
Besides the midsized tibia, a rib cage, and a large femur,
there was a child’s skull. Male or female, the bone cleaner
didn’t know. Nor did she care. The recent dead troubled
her no more than the bones of the plague victims from
At Via della Piazzola, she entered the old section of the
city. Most of the red paint was chipped off her cart. The
bare metal wheels ground against the black flagstones.
Walking past tiny dark alleys, the vichi
, she imagined the
omnibuses draped in black that had waited, centuries ago,
for the priests and stretcher-bearers to carry out the cadavers
during the plague epidemic.
It was a block more to the Church of Santa Maria delle
Anime del Purgatorio. Outside the flower shop, a middleaged
tourist, her hair rumpled from sleep, was bent over
the buckets, inhaling the jasmine. Gina passed like a
shadow come loose from a building. She adjusted the bag
on the cart as it banged along the cobblestones. Market
stalls clustered under medieval arches. The fishmonger
dumped mussels onto a bed of ice. Across the way, the
cheese man hollered up to his wife, who scowled and lowered
a basket from their window. He removed keys and
substituted butter and a loaf of bread.
, Signora,” called a robust man arranging burntorange
apricots in his shop.
, Nico,” she replied.
Near the back of the shop, Nico’s mother sat crocheting.
Everyone knew not to touch the fruit. You pointed to what
you wanted and he made the selections, weighed and
bagged the apples or grapes, and you paid. Gina Falcone
disregarded the convention. Nico didn’t like it but never
objected, even when she ate a piece of fruit without paying.
Or grabbed a pear to test its ripeness and sent a half dozen
others rolling across the ground.
That she did holy work and could intercede for souls waylaid
in purgatory—like Nico’s grandmother—kept him from
saying anything to her. Gina Falcone was among the last of
the bone cleaners. Officially, second burials had ceased
decades ago. It was an ancient practice going back to the
Egyptians. The mourners waited a year for the flesh to
decompose, then disinterred the bones. Some placed them
in an ossuary, a bone box, for the second burial. Or the few
remaining bone cleaners, like Gina, collected them from the
grave keepers and carried them to their rest in certain Naples
churches where the practice was still quietly tolerated.
, Gina,” Nico said, charging her a token for the fruit
She crossed the street to the church, a dark structure
amid the crumbling ochre buildings that surrounded it. A
sunflower, a rose, and a stem of mimosa rested in the iron
gates. Four bronze skulls and femurs sat atop four short
columns. The skulls gleamed, polished daily by the passersby
who touched them. Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio.
Vagrants dozed in the shadows of the black stones,
the Church being too stingy to invite them in but not heartless
enough to forbid them a concrete bed outside its
doors. The odor of urine was strong.
Purgatorio was four centuries old, built around the time
the Cult of the Dead took hold in Naples, when Jesuits
celebrated sixty masses a day on its altars. They preached
among skulls and skeletons laid out on black cloth. The
priests hadn’t held ecstatic services here in many years.
Gina missed them and the large crowds of parishioners
carrying torches and flashlights in procession, descending
to the crypts where each would select a skull to pray over.
The faithful still climbed down into the crypts to wash
bones and privately pray for those in limbo, souls that had
left this world but not yet reached the next.
At the end of the Second World War, Gina Falcone had
dug up the remains of her young husband and another
fallen soldier and prepared them for their second burial.
She felt called to continue, and her work began. For a long
time, business was brisk, but it had slowed during the past
decade. Signora Falcone survived on a small stipend from
the Neapolitan Burial Society and donations from the
Church bells tolled eight times. The madwoman on Vico
del Sole screamed “Attenzione
,” as she had every morning
for years. “Sono malata!
” I am ill. “Il pericolo. Il pericolo
danger. The danger.
A dozen people waited to enter the sanctuary—two
women for every man. Some fingered their rosaries, prayed
under their breath. Tonio the Dwarf stood at the front. A
gang of pigeons pecked at scattered breadcrumbs around
“Away!” Gina cried, waving her arms. They warbled in
protest, ruffling their wings, lifting a foot before alighting
again. She knew who was responsible: Uccello Camillo.
“Bird” Camillo’s pockets bulged with crumbs.
The bone cleaner mumbled and grabbed her cart. The
faithful moved aside to let her through to deliver the new
bones before they entered and descended. Tonio stepped
out of the line to help lift the cart up the steps to the
narrow church entrance. Gina handed him a key. Tonio
was barely taller than the keyhole.
“Needs oil,” he said, working it into the lock. He pushed
open the wooden door in to the dark interior. The only
bright spot was the white altar. At its foot, purple and white
chrysanthemums wilted in a vase.
Gina rolled the cart inside and leaned it against the last
pew, a simple wooden bench without a cushion. She made
the sign of the cross and took the bag from the cart. Gina
Falcone could find her way anywhere in the church with
her eyes closed. She dragged the bones past the altar and
through a small door that led to the crypt. Bones in one
hand, with the other she felt her way down the long
narrow staircase. Her eyes adjusted. At the very bottom
was a faint light. Candles, left perhaps by someone the
The crypt comprised several rooms. In the first, skulls
were piled and stacked everywhere: on the ground, in
niches cut into the walls. A shrine with a lone skull strewn
with dead flowers rested atop a mound of leg bones. Gina
Falcone shifted a decayed sunflower to a flat tin tray layered
with finger bones and more skulls. She passed through
a hallway of tombstones into the larger burial room. This
gallery was filled floor to ceiling with yet more skulls and
bones piled neatly in niches. Some eye sockets held slips of
paper: messages from worshippers, personal information
about the deceased gleaned in dreams about them.
In the room’s center was a bench carved from volcanic
stone. There was an armrest and a hole in its seat. In times
past, the body was placed there, for the flesh to rot away,
the putrefied fluids to pour into the drain below. Puozzà
May you drain away—a taunt still heard in the streets.
It was quiet. Dank and peaceful. Gina stopped short
before a stack of skeletons. Half reclining on the bench,
resting her chin on her hands, was an angel, her face pearly
and framed in wavy red hair. Lovely, all in pink. At her pale
throat, a beautiful necklace glinted with rubies and pearls.
Gina stepped closer to gaze at the red blossom near her
heart. There were no petals, only the hilt of a large knife.
The call came in to the Carabinieri regional station on Via
Casanova, as Captain Natalia Monte finished her twentyfour-
hour sleepover duty. She swung her feet to the floor
and tried to clear her vision.
“Why not the police?” she demanded of her dispatcher.
“The body was found at a cultural shrine.”
“Damn,” she muttered. Protection of cultural institutions
was one of the Carabinieri’s odd areas of responsibility,
answering as they did partly to the Ministries of the
Interior, Exterior, and Defense.
Cursing, Captain Monte pulled on her uniform jacket and
closed the knot of her tie, splashed water on her face, wet her
fingers again, and tamped down her curls. They had sprung
back up by the time she descended the three flights to the
street and her duty car and driver. Getting in beside him,
she closed her eyes and tried to doze as they headed for the
Father Cirillo, the monsignor, was waiting for her at the
entrance to the church, his ample stomach straining
against the mended cassock he’d donned for this task.
“Thank God you’re here,” he said, coming up to Natalia
as she buckled on her holster. “I was at breakfast when I
heard the commotion.”
Together they entered the church. Near the altar, he
pointed to a door, hardly noticeable. Natalia ducked to
avoid hitting her head passing through. “Careful,” he said,
turning to her as they felt their way down the dark stairs
toward the lantern light below.
“Wait,” she ordered. Someone was coming up the stairs
toward them. Natalia drew her pistol as a small man came
around a turn in the stairwell.
“Don’t shoot!” he screamed.
“Luca, you idiot. I ought to put you out of your misery.
If you’ve disturbed anything—”
“Nothing, Captain. Not ever.”
Natalia holstered her weapon. Luca was an old freelance
photographer with a lens for a brain. A nocturnal creature,
he lived for a good murder. Half the time, he arrived at the
scene before the police or the Carabinieri. Luca pressed
past them in the stairwell.
“Monsignor,” he touched his cap. “Captain Monte.”
Natalia glared at him.
“Oh,” he said, stopping. “Where was she killed?”
Natalia pointed upward, saying nothing. Luca scurried
toward the surface.
They passed through a large cavernous room, through a
long hallway, and into a third room, each decorated with
centuries of bones piled onto one another, some organized
into categories, some arranged in eerie patterns.
“She’s in here,” the monsignor said. Natalia paused to
brush dust from her uniform. Despite the Armani design,
it was wrinkled from the long night and now covered with
grit. The red bands running down her pant legs were
grimy, like her, like the cuffs and collar of her white shirt.
A beautiful girl sat on a stone bench in the center of the
room. Ethereal. Pre-Raphaelite. She did look like an
angel—a bloody one.
“As you may have gathered,” Father Cirillo said, “this
chamber was used several hundred years ago for burials
during the plague outbreaks. She’s posed like someone
might have been in the seventeenth century. I’ve never
seen anything like this except in illustrations.”
He was babbling. Natalia wished he wouldn’t. She
stepped closer, examining the ground.
Communing with the dead. Many in Naples still did it.
When Natalia was a girl, her mother’s mother—Natalia’snonna
—had gone weekly to the crypt where her sister’s
bones were displayed. Sometimes she took her granddaughter.
Nonna made herself comfortable on a chair provided
there. If there were no other visitors, the clicking of
her knitting needles was often the only sound.
Such a gloomy city, Natalia thought, but what could you
expect in a metropolis where people actually dressed in
black so as not to be mistaken by the dead as living souls
ripe for haunting? A miracle that anyone got out of bed in
the morning at all.
The monsignor was still lecturing. Cirillo was an amateur
scholar and led occasional tours of his church and the surrounding
neighborhood. Natalia had seen him holding
forth outside the church just the past spring.
“You’re too young to remember World War II. Bombs
dropped on Naples every day. Twenty thousand people
took refuge down here and in passages and cisterns carved
by the Romans in the volcanic rock beneath the city.”
There was not much evidence of blood anywhere in the
room. Murdered elsewhere. Maybe choked at the same
time, given the marks under her jawline. And seriously
stabbed. Twice. The back of the dress was as red with dry
blood as the front was pinkish white.
Skulls ringed the victim in a half circle. Lilies rotted near
her feet, their scent cloying. A candle burned. The victim
was fair with a smattering of freckles, traces of lipstick visible
on her mouth. A girl adorned for life’s pleasures.
Natalia walked the perimeter of the room, peering
behind stacks of leg bones, wrist bones, finger bones, and
skulls. No weapon; only bones and crumbled rock. Something
glinted from the rubble. Natalia stepped closer. She
slipped her gloves on and picked it up. A small silver heart,
untouched by the dust—an ex-voto, a votive offering.
Sixteenth-century worshippers had left them as offerings
to the saints in gratitude for healing a broken limb, a diseased
lung. Clerics as well as laypeople believed in them.
Nowadays, most considered them quaint. Most, but not all.
Ex-votos were usually miniature replicas of hands and
feet or lungs. A heart was unusual. It suggested someone
unsophisticated. Or was that a ruse? Did this poor girl’s
death cure someone of heartbreak? A spurned lover? Or a
mad person? Maybe both and the same.
“‘The Cult of the Dead,’ the worshippers of the bones
were called,” Father Cirillo began.
When Natalia had been a girl, on All Souls’ Night her
father would put a bucket of water outside their front door.
“So the dead can drink as they enter the house,” he’d say.
The next morning, when she would point out that the level
of the water was unchanged, her mother had spat to make
sure her daughter hadn’t aroused the evil eye.
“They get thirsty,” her mother scolded. “Mix this.” She
pushed a bowl of dough to her daughter.
It was to make fave dei morti
—the broad beans of the
dead, the dough molded into the shape of bones. Not a
Neapolitan tradition. Natalia’s mother had learned to
make the cakes from her cousin Rosalia, married to a carpenter
from Tuscany. Long after Cousin Rosalia passed and
every November until her own death, her mother
continued baking them. To honor Rosalia’s memory, she
said. And hedge her bets, Natalia thought.
Before they kneaded the dough or enjoyed the tasty
cakes, Natalia’s mother repeated the prayer from the Cult
of the Dead: “Sante Anime del Purgatorio pregate per noi che
pregiamo per voi
Holy Saints of Purgatory, we beseech you to pray for us
as we pray for you.
Excerpted from These Dark Things by Jan Merete Weiss. Copyright © 2011 by Jan Merete Weiss. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.