The church of the ‘talking’ dead in Urbania

 IMG_0195I’ve waited a long time before posting about the ‘church of the dead’ in Urbania. I finally resolved to do so on November 5th: 4 days after All Saints’ Day, 3 days after the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed and 1 day after our Republic’s Commemoration of the end of WWI (November 4th 1918), where my grandfather Carlo, the father of my dad, fought in his teens.
November, as the Italian writer Fabio Tombari once wrote, is when the Autumn acts as if it were Winter already, and in foggy nights men seem to be made the same stuff dreams are made of: both the living and the dead, the so-called dead’.
Well, last Summer Walter, Costanza and I went to Urbania and walked through the narrow streets of this beautiful village in the upper valley of the Metauro river, close to Urbino – the ideal Renaissance city – in the north of the Marche region. Urbania, the ‘old’ Casteldurante until 1639, was a dominion of the dukes of Urbino and is mostly famous for its ceramics and majolicas, and for the church of the mummies (a curious phenomenon of natural mummification preserved the bodies of eighteen 400-year-old dead, each one with his or her own story to tell). You can pay a visit to the church and see them behind the high altar.IMG_0210

In 1567 the Brotherhood of the ‘Good Death’ was established in Urbania. It essentially aimed at giving an honourable burial to the poor. Its members took care of free transportation of the corpses, gave assistance to the dying, took care of the burial which was held in an area in the back of the small church.

Napoleon, in the early 19th century, issued an edict which established extraurban cemeteries for health reasons: this is when the 18 naturally mummified bodies were found and displayed behind the altar. Later on, in the 1960s and 1970s, it turned out that a particular mold in the soil caused a natural process of mummification that preserved their skin, organs, hair and, in a few cases, even pieces of their clothes.

The mummies were once humble people, often sick, put aside by society, who often died violent deaths (you can tell from the marks left on their bodies). Each one of them has his or her own tragical story to tell: a mother who died in childbirth (you can see the mark of a cross on her womb); a young man who got stabbed (you can see the hole of the blade); the hanged man, the buried alive.

If only they could talk. Sometimes, when I visit the church I feel as if I am invading their private, sacred space. I feel as if I am intruding, even now that I’m posting their pictures.

And yet, what if they are really talking to us? What can we learn from their tragic lives? What about feeling thankful for a change (I’m talking for myself of course) for being alive, loved, healthy? What about taking a chance to think over words like: compassion, respect, sharing, love?




  1. Italians always seem to know how to care for the least of them. Such compassion. We should all learn a thing or two.

    • Thank you Francine. It must be November. Tomorrow I’m going to pay a visit to my grandparents at Pesaro cemetery. It’s in November that I really have a difficult time sometims (especially in foggy days as in these days) to tell the living from the dead. And this is when I get sentimental 😉

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