Two point six million people a year shuffle through the high arch of the Porta Marina and into the remainders of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Some of these visitors meander into the town forum, guidebooks in hand, and mentally rebuild towering marble columns from the crumbled ruins. Or perhaps they journey to this sacred spot to imagine the cobblestone streets alive with tradesmen, children, and slaves. Perhaps, like me, two point six million people a year come to Pompeii and reflect upon death. I came face to face with my own mortality in the wreckage.
When I first arrive at the Pompeii-Scavi train station, the only reminder of death is the murderer herself looming in the distance. Mt. Vesuvius erupted last in 1944, killing twenty-six people. Scientists say she is due for another eruption soon. Of one thing they are certain—she, who sits on a 154 square mile layer of magma, will spew lava from her top again and the consequences will be cataclysmic. It’s unnerving how her grey figure stands in the distance above her destruction, watching, waiting. She was made to create chaos and her work is incomplete. Under her watchful eye, tourists explore what she destroyed on that tragic day in seventy-nine A.D. The explosion that brought darkness also brought light by burying the town alive and consequently, preserving it. I am here today because of her. Her hand could bury me tomorrow.
The bits and pieces of conversation that I hear along the walk to the entrance to the site are lighthearted. Signs advertising cheap pizza and free Internet access line the walls. Persistent men push their arrays of multicolored selfie sticks into the face of every tourist who comes within ten feet. People here actually buy these egocentric devices that maximize the amount of people you can fit into one picture you take of yourself; I see a group of teens bartering in Italian for one. It’s not the concept of the “selfie stick” that is so disturbing as the context in which they are being sold. Pompeii is a place where thousands of Romans were smothered under pumice and ash; it is a place of remembrance and mourning. Imagine the disrespect of someone selling selfie sticks at a graveyard. Everyone smile, you’ll make the spirits proud. Why does no one give this practice a second thought here? We are at the ultimate historical graveyard, eternal home to both young and old, healthy and sick. Are the Pompeian’s dead to a lesser degree because they died two thousand years ago? At what point does death demand less respect?
The clicks of camera shutters surround me as I enter the forum. Picking up my own Nikon, I snap a few pictures of the rust-colored rubble contrasted against the bleak sky as I try to push the thought of death from my mind. My group follows our guide to a corner, where the plaster casts of victims are on display. Excavators filled plaster into the hollow spaces left within the hardened volcanic debris after the decay of the bodies, creating lifelike statues from the molds. They are graphic reminders of the last moments of life here. One man crouches with his hands pulled up to his face as if in prayer. Another lies down with his face buried in his arms, too afraid to look death in the face. A jaw with perfectly preserved teeth opens fully in mid-scream. I can barely look at the image of the pregnant woman without feeling a deep sense of sorrow because she never looked upon her growing child’s face. Click. Someone next to me takes a photo of the casts. Click. Click. Click. The clicks grow more prevalent the more I pay attention to them. As the shutters close, my mind opens. Where I see death, some see plaster. When I look at these casts, I imagine myself in their position and suddenly I am screaming, praying, and fearing for my life. Click.
Disturbing thoughts of the dying woman follow me around for hours until I’m unable to separate myself from her. I think of my aspirations and everything that I want to accomplish before departing the earth. I want to love people the way I imagine the pregnant woman loved her baby—fiercely, bravely, unconditionally. Whose faces will I picture in my last few moments? What legacy will I leave behind?
It’s strange and uncomfortable to think about one’s own mortality, but it’s also an important part of the human experience. The technological distractions of this day hinder this kind of reflective thinking. Suddenly, the successfulness of selfie sticks makes sense. It’s not that we intentionally disrespect the dead; we just prefer to ignore them. It’s less painful to smile for a selfie than to face the thoughts of our own death. It’s easier to place these people into a category marked Ancient and snap a picture. When we are unwilling, unable, or too distracted to dive deep into mortality, we lose our appreciation for both the past and present.
“The beauty of things must be that they end,” Kerouac wrote. The beauty of life stems from our humble mortality. We must always seize the day or again in the words of Kerouac, “Climb that goddamn mountain.” The mountain represents our passions—the things that make us feel alive and whole. One-day molten lava may bust down our front door and we’ll never look up from our Iphones. One thing is for sure--the Pompeians never wasted time looking at a screen. The pleasant Italian climate meant they spent a great deal of their lives outdoors. Romans from elsewhere traveled far to vacation in the picturesque setting. The ruins of their houses, brothels, bathhouses, frescoes, and even the grid of their streets reflect a tight knit community of people. Running water and the ingenious design of their bathhouses suggest they were smart, clean, and sophisticated. They valued art, music, family, theatre, sex, love, and the Gods. Pompeians climbed that goddamn mountain.
Even in death, these ancient peoples embody life. Blood stopped flowing through their veins thousands of years ago, but their legacy marches on for two point six million tourists a year to uncover. Put down your cameras. Refuse the selfie sticks. Pay attention to the voices of the people who perished here. Learn from them. Life and death intertwine and coexist, and there are few places that shout this louder than Pompeii if only you pause and listen.