I went in search of Livilla, of the alabaster that held her ashes. Livilla is a lesser-known figure of ancient Rome. Her brother, the emperor Caligula, damaged the empire with his insanity and spending. Her uncle, the emperor Claudius, healed it some. Her sister Agrippina — the focus of my manuscript-in-progress — ultimately married their uncle and became Empress of Rome. Agrippina places Livilla’s urn, quietly, in the Mausoleum of Augustus some time after her sister’s death.
My hope was to see this urn from 47 c.e. Rome in person. The grant that paid my way to that city hinged on this object. I knew the urn’s location, but had no access to it. Despite the incredible work of everything from digital archives to blogs, this urn seemed lost in a void. I wanted to describe it accurately in a poem. From books, I knew the alabaster was cream colored with icy veins. I knew etched on its side it likely said hic crematus est, and it was the shape of a house with ornate carvings, with a slot at the top for pouring milk and wine on the ashes. That was what the books manifested, but nothing more.
I picked a horrible time to go to the Vatican. The urn was there — I knew that. I needed to get in, and my days in Rome were disappearing quickly, so I went when there were tickets (in the afternoon). The crowd of people was such that, even with my advanced booking, I was caught up within the horde. The Vatican maps are inscrutable — like a metro map lacking the details of where, exactly, different stops are located. Considering the usual day in this museum, this is an unsurprising curatorial decision. Most people move in a single direction without regard for their options. Ultimately I felt like I was in a heart, pumping. Being pushed through this circuit with no possibility for alternative routes and terrified at any moment I would surge past the urn. People aren’t looking at much, generally. For most, these sculptures and artifacts are what you pass on the way to the Sistine Chapel, which is just a stop before going to something else in the city.
In Ancient Rome when someone dies, loved ones gather. The closest family member closes the eyes and kisses the mouth. The body is placed on a dirt floor, as when a baby is born. There is washing. There is dressing in oil, fine clothes, and placement for people to view in the home, feet facing the door. There is no embalming. Perfumey herbs are laid out. In the mouth or on each of the eyes of the dead is a coin — Charon’s obol — to get them over water and into the underworld.
From my research, I believed Livilla’s urn was located in the Gregorian Etruscan wing. I searched for the wing while being pushed through rooms and passageways along with the hundreds of other Vatican visitors. There were busts and tile mosaics and grand tubs. When facing a long hallway with row after row of Roman statues and urns with no placards or explanation beyond an inventory number, I began to panic. I might pass Livilla’s urn by. I asked a guard who had never heard of it, but he could only tell me I was not in the right wing. The language barrier stopped us there. I looped back to the outdoor courtyard to think. I asked another guard — “Upstairs.” I had just been upstairs, but perhaps missed a turn. I went back into the throng, pushed along and again had a pang of worry that I missed something. I fought back through the crowd out to the courtyard again where I had space to breathe. After screwing up the nerve, I found a third guard and asked again. He worked his forehead a bit and then remembered that the Gregorian Etruscan wing is often closed in the afternoons. It was on the third floor. My gut sunk as I moved through the rooms yet again and found the wing, indeed, cordoned off. I could peek into locked metal-framed glass doors and spy the display cases filled with wares of antiquity. Thoroughly demoralized, I walked through the major arteries of the building, looked at other artifacts. Eventually I sat, face upward, gazing at the Sistine Chapel, an audio guide piping information into my ear, making me feel like the planning and the hours and museum fee were perhaps not all for nothing considering the glory around me.
After some days, there is a procession through Roman streets. At the very least, there are flute players. The procession’s grandness depends on the wealth of the dead — with more money comes more living bodies that surround the corpse’s parade. The body is on a pallet, raised by male family dressed in grays and browns. Women family members follow in white. Actors bear imagines — ancestral masks of the relatives of the deceased. There are mimes and musicians. Women who weep for pay tear out their hair in clumps. The procession in death is often larger than that for a wedding.
Once I got back to my flat, I emailed the Vatican help desk attempting to make clear my importance and the validity of my need to access the Etruscan wing. I had a grant to see this object, specifically. I needed the details of the Etruscan’s hours of operation. In a few hours I received a response referring to another office. At this point I found myself in awe of Vatican bureaucracy (or at least of its museum). The second office responded promptly the next morning. They required a letter from my department in order to provide me one hour of free access to the wing to which I required access for my research. I quickly supplied this document, and they provided me a time and instructions an hour later. Upon arrival to the Vatican Museum, the man at the information desk knew who I was immediately. I watched as he filled out a special permission sheet. (A Vatican form bearing a “special permission” stamp by my name is ephemera I am pained I do not hold in my personal archive.) The museum information desk staff called over a guard, and I was escorted past the crowds, clicked up the marble stairs, and a guard from within the Gregorian Etruscan wing keyed open the dead bolt for our entry. This entire process from my first email to the appropriate office to the opening the door took no more than three hours.
I moved through the wing with my personal guard trailing behind. Some of the oldest artifacts there were indeed urns — from thousands and thousands of years ago. Dark wide-lipped vases with mushroom cap lids to keep the remains within. Others looked like thatch huts. Some were mud, some bronze, manifesting in all various forms. The human interest in the dead, the desire to burn a body up and place it somewhere — the importance of that somewhere — has existed for ages. I knew this, and know it is hardly limited to the West. But when you’re looking, specifically, for an urn, you start to look differently. The clock ticking on my hour in the wing, I pushed on past very ancient materials. I needed the first half of the first century c.e. I found a room of small alabaster marble urns with ornate narrative carvings on their sides. The lids each bore a reclining body, partially raised up, the faces looking outward. They were dated 2-3 b.c.e. Then 2 b.c.e. I found one that didn’t look too different from the others in the room, but the placard dated it from the “latter half of 1 b.c.” and I felt myself trembling for its closeness to the date of the urn I wanted to see. I realized that if I did find Livilla’s urn, I would weep in front of it, alone — save for a bewildered guard nearby.
Eulogies take place during the procession, too. For men, mostly. For the very important, the procession pauses at the Forum for those to speak of the dead to the public, from a platform. Speeches are solely to praise — one was not to speak ill of the dead. The poor likely made speeches of love, but there is no record there.
This impulse to cry before Livilla’s urn wasn’t because of the glory of locating an elusive object as a researcher — though that may have been a small part of it. That morning I had gotten word my uncle died during the Roman night as I slept. Just a few weeks prior we received news that his cancer, which had been in full remission not two months ago, had returned. But there was a chance. Then it was in his bones. It was everywhere. I had run all over Rome for days prior, hitting the locations I was compelled to see for my research, worrying over the chance of bad news and needing to be called away. I held onto my tasks fiercely, as one might the neck of a bolting horse beneath you. I saved the Vatican for last as I thought it would be the easiest of the research points — a puzzle already figured before my arrival in Rome.
I had not yet cried over his death that day, feeling numb and searching for a mission, and the Vatican provided with its staff’s magnificent promptness. So I found myself pausing over these vessels of death — this stone and bronze that survived longer than the ash remains they once contained.
I made a ring around the room, looking closely at the small laminated placards at the dates, the translations of the carved inscriptions. Nothing. Nothing after Christ’s death — that definitive marker. I pushed on to a room with two full-body sarcophagi in red clay from Tuscany, their lids with life-size depictions of the dead, eyes wide and vacant as I know the dead can stare before the gentle holding them shut. One full clay body was cracked in half at the hips, and I was startled by how deeply this cut me.
I was beginning to grow desperate. I went from vessel to vessel, room to room, and could not find Livilla’s urn. I then attempted to enlist the help of my guard. We went through the whole Etruscan wing again as a team — no luck. He popped into the wing’s office and pulled down a large blue binder, leafing through what appeared to be a surprisingly casual photo album of the objects within the Etruscan, but this gave us nothing. I began to think I must have passed it in another wing when I wandered through the museum the other day. In that wing there were many urns on pedestals without markers other than numbers. Hundreds and hundreds. My guard shrugged with an apology, then briskly escorted me out of the wing, down the steps, and into a revolving door that deposited me onto the street.
In Catullus’ poem to his dead brother, the otherwise irreverent ancient poet writes (via Anne Carson), “Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed— / … so I could give you the last gift owed to death / and talk (why?) with mute ash.”
Carson writes of what is otherwise known as poem 101, “No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind … I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends.”
When I returned to my flat it was late enough in the day to call my aunt despite the time difference. I finally had space to cry. We wept together over this early death and our love, bearing this pain of having a loved one present and then the sudden not-having. That terrible vacuum that was someone, once. We calmed a little and spoke some. Eventually she handed the phone to my mother, who explained there would be a special urn made for my uncle, which my aunt decided upon that day. He was cremated the night he died, his ashes waiting. To attempt a new topic, we talked about my morning at the Vatican. How Livilla’s icy alabaster urn eluded me. “You must go back,” she said, “go back and find it.” “It may not be findable,” I responded. She pressed me to email again, get the specific location. To work the problem away and hunt until the urn was before me. This began to all feel like a maddening metaphor. To be chasing death when it was right at my feet in a far more significant way.
But tasks help the grieving, momentarily. I wrote. I waited.
The procession ends away from the city center, at the place of burial. The pallet and body are placed on a pyre — logs and tinder assembled to hold it and burn. A sow is brought forward and killed. A section of her body is charred and set on the goddess Ceres’ altar. Another portion is skewered on a spit and set with the corpse on the funeral pyre. The remainder is a funeral feast — a final meal with the dead. A close family member sets a torch to the pyre. Perfume and objects for the dead to use in the afterlife are thrown on the flames. Once the burning is complete, the fire is doused with wine.
Livilla received none of these funeral rites. She died in exile on an island, of forced starvation. Hence Agrippina’s quiet placement of her urn in her great-grandfather Augustus’ remarkable mausoleum. No fanfare, no attention — simply honoring the dead.
The ancient method of cremation is not as effective as modern methods. There are often whole teeth and bones. The ash is shoveled and placed in an urn, with all its varied elements. In Livilla’s time, the urns may be egg-shaped, or similar to houses with storytelling carvings on their sides. They might be marble, or alabaster. Or, for the poor, likely mud. The slot at the top allowed for visitors to drop offerings of flowers and libation to the ashes.
I am not patient, generally. Being thousands miles away from my loved ones while grieving, starving for an assignment of some kind, didn’t help. At the time of sending my follow-up email, I had two more days to see Livilla’s urn before leaving Rome. One day eased by with no response. On the morning of my final day I began to do research, hoping perhaps to find the location and simply buy a ticket and go.
The Vatican Museum website is confusing, at best. Each wing has its own page, but the majority of the text is devoted to the Pope who acquired the objects within the wing. The actual objects within the wing, which often number in the hundreds or thousands, are described in one or two sentences. Dates are vague. The Vatican provides images for two or three items among the thousands. This is the case for the Classical Antiquities wings within the Vatican. In short, they are more concerned with proffering information about the different Popes who acquired the objects than the objects themselves. So even though I knew the object type, material, and date, this got me almost nowhere when going through the website for the place that bore it up on a pedestal within its walls.
I turned, eventually, elsewhere. Perusing a book, I found a random footnote on Livilla’s urn referencing another book, and then: “Braccio Nuovo, inv. 2302.” This was clearly the bright thread to pull. Indeed, “Braccio Nuovo” was a portion of the Vatican: “New Wing,” “inv.” meaning inventory number. This was it. The exact location. I immediately wrote, requesting access. I tried to determine if I could go to the wing myself, staring at the metro-like Vatican map and website and learning nothing.
Some hours later I received a response to my request. The turnaround was too quick, they said. It was not possible. I asked if the wing was open — if so I would purchase a ticket and find the object myself, no escort necessary. “The Braccio Nuovo is closed to the public for restorations and we do not know yet when it will be open again.”
The ashes are gathered, poured into the white or cream-colored urn, and placed in a crypt. The loved ones gather around the urn set in a notch. As a group they speak the word “vale.” Farewell.
My aunt told me to continue on my travels, for I had roughly three weeks planned ahead of me. “You’re too far away,” she said. “Visit later. It’ll still be hard then.” Yet mourning in solitude proved to bring up its own difficulties. It was hard — very hard. In truth, I felt downright mad with loneliness though I had only a few days before the next leg of my trip. While lonely, I tried to hold in my mind the reality that in grief I join a population so large I cannot comprehend it. It is what marks the human experience. One person told me we cry for the living — those who endure as others leave us. As Will Daddario writes, “‘To grieve’ is to navigate the waters of life with the knowledge that those waters are more expansive than a single human’s living.” Yet this can be hard to conceptualize for long. Grieving is often overwhelmingly personal. And it isn’t exactly heartening to realize you’re connected with everyone who has ever lived via the conduit of suffering. After getting through those rainy days of weeping alone in my apartment, I was on a plane to Albania. Two old friends were serving as Peace Corps volunteers there. After I arrived, my friends mentioned a Bektashi Sufi Temple near their city they had yet to visit. My knowledge of Sufism is largely literary. I think of Hafez (via Robert Bly) who writes, “Don’t kiss anything except the sweetheart’s lip / And the cup of wine.” The ecstasy of love and drunkenness bringing one closer to God felt like a good impulse at the moment.
One bright afternoon the three of us took the switchbacks up the hill to the temple by rumbling cab. My friend leaned in and asked if I had a question prepared for the dervish. I hadn’t known I would have the opportunity see the dervish, much less ask him a question. I said I had to think about it. The temple was quiet with bright white walls topped with mint-green dome roofs. It included a walled garden at its center and a stand of young apple tree sprigs at its edge bearing a few dark fruits so enormous they looked fake. The whole of the temple was new — the Albanian government, when Communist, had destroyed nearly all the religious buildings in the country. This temple was built beside the ruins of its predecessor. The new building, its beauty, was the dervish’s undertaking.
After walking in silence, taking in the valley below, viewing the former dervishes’ mausoleums, I had my question: What am I meant to take from all this death? For my uncle’s death was not the only one with its grip on me. While I was away a dear friend nearly died from an ectopic pregnancy, and a beloved pet received a death-sentence cancer diagnosis. Above all, just weeks prior to my departure, my partner’s father died quite suddenly, thoroughly devastating us. When I asked my partner if I should stay, he, like my aunt, prodded me to continue with the trip. Now this loss all felt like too much to bear — but perhaps some direction or potential lesson might buoy me through the pain of grief upon grief.
We crossed paths with the dervish in a stairwell, and as he shook our hands I noted his golden front tooth. My friend spoke to him in Shqip, proffering my question. Though I understood none of the language I watched the dervish give a brief response with a small shrug of his shoulders and wagging of his head. My friend paused and said more — including the word tragjedi, which I could discern well enough. Another quick cool answer, a shake of our hands, and the dervish moved on. My friends exchanged a strange look. “What did he say?” I asked, more than a little excited. “He said, ‘Death comes from God,’” my friend said. “I explained that your uncle died from cancer and that he was young,” he went on. “He just said, ‘Cancer doesn’t ask how old you are.’”
I said nothing. This response left me stricken, my eyes smarting as we continued through the rooms. Perhaps I didn’t know shit about Sufism. Perhaps I should not have expected more from this man, holy or no. Perhaps having an American ask him for advice about dealing with death was absurd and offensive to him, considering Albania’s history — the very ruins surrounding this temple. That may have all been true, but nevertheless a profound sadness bloomed in me once my friend translated the dervish’s response. His lack of tenderness, I have since recognized, is what wounded me. My attempt to mitigate my pain, to connect — he snuffed it out. Yet he was not wrong, ultimately. The terrible reality of grief is indeed how wholly alone you are. And often you must face it alone to survive it. You are reminded of this during any quiet moment of solitude — in the vacuum of sound and company, the grief rushes in. I think now of a poem by Alejandra Pizarnik, entitled “Silences,” beautifully translated by Yvette Siegert:
Death always at my side.
I listen to what it says.
And only hear myself.
Anne Carson, Nox. New York: New Directions, 2009.
Will Daddario, To Grieve. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017.
Hafez The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door. Translated by Robert Bly and Leonard Lewisohn. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.
Alejandra Pizarnik, Extracting the Stone of Madness. Translated by Yvette Seigert. New York: New Directions, 2016.
”Silences” by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert, from EXTRACTING THE STONE OF MADNESS, copyright © 2000 by Miriam Pizarnik, translation copyright © by Yvette Siegert. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.