By Guest blogger Shayna Nardi
Visiting Italian Cemeteries
During my recent trip to southern Italy, I wanted to visit a few cemeteries in the Matese region to see if I could find ancestors’ graves.
After watching Ann’s video and reading the relevant chapter in Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research by Trafford Cole, I had low expectations—and for good reason!
The first thing that I realized is that Italian cemeteries are often located outside the city center (based on Roman and Napoleon’s laws about hygiene) and are not affiliated with a place of worship or a private business as is common in the United States. Most people are Catholic, but a deceased person doesn’t have to be any particular religion to be buried in the city graveyard.
Because these cemeteries are managed by the local town/city government, they are not always efficient or open many hours—a common dilemma with U.S. city government services (I say this as a public employee). Their open hours weren’t posted on the municipal websites, so we had to call the city office or just show up at the cemetery to check. The times listed on the front signs weren’t always right either, because at one, the sign listed it as being closed at that moment, but the gate was open and nobody was around, so we went right in without any problem!
Most of the graves are above ground in wall niches, but some are in or above the ground. Some niches are protected from the weather by being indoors or within a “chapel,” others are not. I’m not quite sure how the bodies fit in the small niches unless they are cremated, which didn’t become more common until recently. These very old niches show the small amount of space and how they are emptied after awhile.
Unless a family purchases a “chapel” in perpetuity, it seems that remains are usually moved at a certain point to another location, with or without the grave marking, but I’m not clear where or when. My Italian cousin said that eventually our family’s remains will be moved to the top niche, which is currently blank–as in this example–but I’m not sure what happens to the name plates below or when the top niche gets filled.
Some graves have names listed, dates of birth and death, and photos, but this is not consistent and depends on what the family paid for. I saw no inscriptions or quotes or very ornate decorations as are typical for many old gravestones in U.S. cemeteries. One cemetery had a huge rubble pile of broken marble and stone pieces, as if something large was demolished right beside other family chapels, but I’m not sure what or why.
Ann and Trafford are right in that it isn’t easy to find gravestones for people before 1950. I don’t think cemetery maps exist, so a family member who knows has to show you where the most recent relatives are buried. In all cemeteries, there were a few nameplates of people who passed in the early 1900s, but not many.
Overall, our visits were partially successful. We found no relatives who died in the 1900s or earlier in one cemetery; in another cemetery, my Italian cousin was unable to find our great grandfather’s grave from 1920. In the third cemetery, my cousin led me right to the family graves, all who passed after 1965.