The six gravediggers sweating in shirtsleeves were respectfully quiet as they heaved shovelfuls of earth high in the air. As they were in the far corner of the graveyard, I wasn’t quite close enough to get a good look at what they were doing – and wasn’t quite sure I wanted to either.
“So, one of the monks has recently died?” I asked our Romanian guide.
“Either one has died or one is being dug up. It’s always busy for the gravediggers.”
My face must have registered my surprise because she smiled and pointed to the low chapel on our left. “You’ll see. It’s all part of our history.” We ducked our heads and left the sweet sunshine behind to enter the basement of the Bogoslov Church.
I stifled a small gasp as we came face to face with over 530 gaping skulls in various states of disrepair. But this wasn’t like The Killing Fields of Cambodia, where the skulls were a remembrance of past evils, but a place where the histories of the devout were kept.
The Neamt Monastery was first mentioned historically in the 14th century, however the practice of digging up and preserving the bones of deceased monks at Bogoslov Church didn’t begin until the 1700’s. According to Roman Orthodox monastic tradition, after 7 years the bones of the deceased monk were taken out of the earth and placed here, in this basement. On the monks skull they wrote his name and what were his duties in the monastery. The more revered bones belonged to beloved bishops of the Neamt Monastery.
The bones of Neamt Monastery are special. They are a library of bones. Each one telling a short story of the men who lived and worshiped there. Our guide explained that this was a special place for many Romanians because it gave proof that they were here. In their own times they have seen history books rewritten and great passages of time and people erased. But here, in this quiet basement, the history is real. It lives in the bones of those who came before.