Ok. Not literally. And certainly not those Capuchin monks pictured here. They were 100% dead when they were added to the crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione dell Cappuccine in Rome. The Buried Alive I’m talking about is the Sepolte Vive, the nickname for the Capuchins’ former sister convent which used to be just off Via Cavour.
Francesca Farnese founded the order in 1641. She was an unfortunate member of the powerful Farnese family, disfigured by smallpox and dumped in a convent when she was nine. Under her rule, the Sepolte Vive got their nickname by severing communications with the outside world once they took their vows. While their Capuchin brothers expressed their mortality and humility externally by building their famous crypt of bones, the sisters expressed it internally by living in silence and in a constant state of penance (as is so often the case with pious Catholic women).
There is one famously lurid account of a Sepolte Vive convent that came out of Vienna in 1869. It was later adapted into an American anti-Catholic pamphlet called The Convent Horror and described nuns slowly starving themselves into half-crazed skeletons who forgot how to speak. Though there maybe real mistreatment and madness at the root of the story, neither the Protestant publishers, nor the Catholic apologists who refute the entire account are to be trusted.
A more reliable account of their practices comes from Convent Life and Work, published in 1876. Though less salacious it still recounts some shockingly austere practices. For example:
“The death of a nun’s nearest relation, be it father, mother, brother or sister, is made known to the superior alone, and she in her turn announces it, not to the bereaved one, but to the whole sisterhood, in this manner: They are all assembled in the community-room, and admonished to ‘pray for the soul of the father or mother’ (as the case may be) ‘of one among their number.’ To the day of her death the nun never knows how near and dear by the ties of Nature may have been the soul for which she has prayed every day since the announcement was made.”
Today there’s nothing left of the convent. It was demolished when Via Cavour was built. The Capuchins still have a sister convent at Corpus Christi alla Garbatella, though the name Buried Alive no longer applies.
(Photo of the Capuchin crypt from a postcard.)