Around our local parish church of San Gemignano there is a stone pillar, the lone relic from what used to be the burial ground before its removal to a separate area. In former times this quarter (as old photographs show) would have been crowded with tombstones. The recent excavations around the old church crowning Castle Hill at another village in the comune, Benabbio, have dug up the bones of inmates in the graveyard, many of whom died in one of the epidemics of rampant cholera, bubonic plague common in previous disinfectant-ignorant centuries or just plain TB. Through sanitary edicts, these unhygienic places were closed down, the bodies exhumed and “dedicated” locales allotted to them, some short distance away from the residences of the living – hence the lack of very old tombs in Italian cemeteries. (Another reason is that the grave-plot is always lease-hold rather than free-hold and the bones will be dug up upon lease expiry to be deposited in the more modest columbariums of the cemetery wall).Indeed, in Italy I have seen little approaching the classic English country churchyard with tombs of “our rude forefathers”, often dating back hundreds of years, scattered around the parish tower; little chance of recollecting Gray’s elegy here (except, perhaps, if you visit the protestant cemeteries in Rome and Florence). At Bagni di Lucca, however, if one feels nostalgic there is the “cimitero inglese” by the river Lima. For long neglected, this hallowed acre is being restored to its former glory – last year there was an re-opening ceremony with local dignitaries – and, now with fixed visiting hours, it is much easier to gain access to its characteristically English graveyard scenario of turf, trees and stone inscriptions. In many cemeteries, the magnificence of tombs is often at some variance from the relative importance of the remains contained in them. With the protestant cemetery, however, there is often a close correlation between the best of the tombs and the significance of those buried within them. Thus, I single out among the finest those of Ouida (once best-selling novelist), Rose Cleveland (sister of a US president, pioneering charity worker and lesbian lover and Angelina Whipple, her partner and author of “A Famous Corner of Italy” – the classic book on Bagni di Lucca). These pictures illustrate their morose beauty:
Today’s Italian cemeteries are often ugly things and sometimes, especially in urban centres, appear to be the analogy of apartment blocks rather than the English equivalent of detached houses set in turfy grounds within a tree-lined suburban avenue. Yet they hold immense historical value in their dedications and tomb photographs. They also have a strong social hold as witnesses the “Festa dei morti” when, every November, relatives gather with bunches of flowers and a prayer to remember departed family members in quasi-Etruscan rituals. (Interestingly, children are not excluded from attending funerals, as they often are in England).
I have found some extraordinary cemeteries in this country – among these I count Staglieno in Genoa (which also has Mazzini’s tomb) and Milan’s “cimitero monumentale” with Verdi’s memorial. More recently, I visited Lucca’s very own “cimitero monumentale” and was moved to find a commemorative plaque to Catalani, finally erected in 2003, 150 years after his untimely death. Many of the funerary shrines are quite astonishing, built in every conceivable architectural style and displaying a wide variety of statues guaranteed to make one weep with sorrow, or nausea. The Italian “campi santi” (holy fields) are, indeed “cities of the dead” – direct descendants of the ancient necropolis.
Graveyards naturally produce concentrated thoughts about one’s own mortality and among several ex-pats here I have discerned a slight worry about what may happen to them when they shake off their mortal coil. Will they get that traditional churchyard burial in native soil or will the hospital ward in which they die incinerate their body, or don’t they really care what happens to them?
Without wishing to sound prematurely morbid I feel it is up to everyone to make some death provisions, especially in Italy. I do not wish myself or my body to be a burden on anyone, (transhipment charges can be very high and bureaucratic arrangements complex), so I have made arrangements to be cremated (as has been perfectly permissible in Italy for some years), my ashes to be placed in an urn and then flown to Blighty to be scattered over the Thames at Gallion’s reach in the London (Royal) Borough of Greenwich (a place which obviously holds a secret significance to me). Alternatively, I am promised a position in Plumstead cemetery SE18, which might prove a suitable alternative as the views from there are quite splendid.
I’m apologetic in sounding somewhat overcast but recent events in Boston have truly shaken my heart.