Rest in Peace – well for a while

French cemetery at Venafro French cemetery at Venafro

Most of Southern Italy is very mountainous and this makes arable land very precious for growing crops and grazing animals. It leaves very little land suitable for cemeteries’ and burials.
Prior to Napoleon’s conquering of Italy bodies were interred in the crypt below the church floor. There was a strict order for the placing of the bodies. Babies and children were placed to the left of the altar (on the floor above), with women towards the back but still on the left. The rich and important were placed to the right of the altar with the common men at the back, on the right. As the bodies decayed, the bones and ashes were gathered and placed in a common vault. The rich and powerful might be permitted a vault in the church itself and this certainly happened in the larger churches. It usually involved building a side chapel at the family’s expense. If you are visiting old churches in Italy look on the floor for the old entrance to the crypt usually a square manhole with a ring at the centre.
Note: when you are in Rome visit the Crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (visit the Via Veneto area) is worth a visit if you’re interested in seeing some works of art made from the bones of more than 4000 dead monks.
Napoleon believed it was unhealthy to have bodies decaying below the church floor and ordered them cleared and moved to a cemetery outside the town limits. Of course now the towns have grown many are within the limits but in smaller towns they are still situated a distance from the town.
Burials usually take place within 24 hours of death unless there are special circumstances. Since many small towns do not have daily newspapers posters are printed and posted all over the town within hours of the death. If the deceased died at home the vigil would take place there with family members coming and going all through the night. If the death took place in the hospital then the body is not allowed to be taken home and the ‘wake’ tales place in the hospital in a special room set aside for the purpose. The deceased then goes directly to the church with a detour past their home for a short prayer before the mass and interment.
Cremation isn’t popular in Italy because the Catholic Church favors burial. However, it was an ancient Roman custom and it was introduced again in the early 1800’s under Napoleon for ‘hygienic reasons’ and discontinued after he was ousted.
Much more common is the placing of the deceased in a ‘niche’ for a period of up to 30 years after which the ashes and bones are removed and placed in the ‘ossario’ or bone vault. This can be a family vault or a communal vault. Niches are leased for periods of 30 to 99 years and can be used several times or just once. If the lease is renewed the deceased can continue to ‘rest in peace’ until the lease runs out and the ashes are removed. My father-in-law died several years ago after purchasing a 99 year lease on a ‘niche’ in the new part of the cemetery. He left a handwritten will which stated in no uncertain terms that he was to be left undisturbed until the lease ran out or he would put a curse on the person who disobeyed these instructions. This presented a dilemma for the family. Who would take responsibility for his ashes 99 years from now? Even his Great Grandchildren would probably not be around in 99 years and who would remember him and his curse?.
Most cemeteries have some in-ground burial plots for the poor who cannot afford to lease a ‘niche’. Since a body decomposes much more quickly in the ground these plots can be reused after as little as 10 years.
Most niches and burial plots today have a photo of the deceased together with their name and dates (or years) of birth and death. These niches are regularly tended and adorned with fresh flowers. November 2nd is the National Day of the Dead (All souls day) with families gathering and touring the various locations and saying the traditional prayers. It is not unusual for family gatherings to happen that weekend, much like the American Thanksgiving.
Chrysanthemums are often used at funerals and in memory of the dead in Europe. When Grace Kelly was newly married she didn’t realize this and put a vase of these flowers on a guest’s bedside table. Prince Ranier was very upset and berated her. “Don’t you know that these flowers symbolize death in Europe?” he said. I know how she felt having bought Chrysanthemums to take to a dying relative of my husband. When he saw what I had chosen he did a ‘donut’ in the parking lot and ordered me to return them and choose something else.
All of the above means that unless your ancestor is rich or famous it is unlikely you will find a grave for them in Southern Italy. However, if you have a relative who died in Italy during WW2 and is buried there you probably will find their grave. Italian communities gave up precious land to create cemeteries equal to anything you might find in North America and they are tended lovingly by the population for whom they gave their lives.

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