So I recently had another “religious” experience here in Italia. Not in the “church” type (as when the priest knocks on the door every spring to bless the apartment) but in a more “spiritual” one, I suppose. November 1st is “All Saint’s Day” and the day after is “All Soul’s Day.” The first is treated as a national holiday and when my sisters and I were growing up, our father explained to us this was when we honor the saints and then on the following day, our deceased loved ones. Well, okay, to us in America that didn’t mean a whole lot. Well, for those here in Italy, it does.
We went to visit Andrea’s mother in Lugo this past weekend, and on a balmy Saturday morning, accompanied her along with her sister-in-law and her daughter, and her daughter (three generations of daughters) to the cemetery to honor those deceased. Dina (Andrea’s mom) brought a short stack of Mass cards with little strings attached and a bouquet of mums and a potted plant. (Remember the 50 mums we used to plant in the yard around the house every fall? No one plants mums here as they are used in the cemeteries.)
So, the Italians take this weekend to honor the souls by visiting the cemetery, which, unlike those in the US, is a walled in and gated labyrinth full of monuments, small temples, walkways through mausoleums, and row upon row of marble, granite, and concrete tombs. Many of them have glass doors and alters, some with huge, life-size photos of the deceased (usually those who have died young) and smaller, modest ones from the early 20th c. Almost every person buried has a photo of him or herself that is encased in durable glass or plastic. I had visited here in the summer on Andrea’s father’s death anniversary, but on this particular weekend, every single tomb had flowers: in vases, potted, hanging, bouquets, planted, every possible type (orchids, carnations, birds of paradise, MUMS). The cemetery was full of families cutting, pruning, watering (even scrubbing) and praying. It was fascinating to walk through the different sections and to see the faces in the photos; the ones from the turn of the century are stern – the non-smiling women (in what I always thought of as the traditionally Italian black headscarves) and the men in bowler hats. The modern photos are full of smiling faces, some with cigars or a motorcycle, a favorite pet or just walking down the street. Until I viewed the photos, I didn’t realize just how many people die young. Andrea’s father tomb (above right) is in the “highly desirable” area, under some evergreen trees where it is mossy underfoot. Raimondo Ricci has a big smile on his face – his photo sits above the one of his mother, who is buried beneath him. Here is where Andrea’s mother put the fresh mums in two vases attached to the tomb, and then read through the cluster of Mass cards that hung there. Andrea’s mother’s family tomb consists of the four aunts who raised her (four are buried here together - can you see Ray in the photo below?), as well as her mother, Sara, who died giving birth to her brother when Dina was four years old. When I asked about the coincidence of the mother dying the same year as her father (Andrea’s great-grandfather), Dina told us that he was already ill when he learned that his daughter died in childbirth, he then had a heart attack and died the same day.
The Mass cards: one can buy them from the church or one of the local stands outside the cemetery. On the card, you write your name as well as the name of the deceased, and then hang it on the tomb to show the family that you remembered their loved one. I asked Andrea if this was really to memorialize the one deceased, or was it more to gain recognition (and good standing) with living family members? He said it was probably a little of both. Dina hung about 5 cards on various tombs (and put the remaining potted plant in another) but still had a dozen or so remaining. To save her a return trip and a long stroll, Andrea and I returned to the cemetery the next morning to finish distributing her cards so that the living friends and relatives wouldn’t think she shunned their loved ones. We had to call her a few times on the mobile phone when we couldn’t find a particular tomb, but we were successful in the end (“….towards the tall trees, to the left, look for the red marble columns; or, on the wall facing the road, it’s on the upper right corner with one of those eternal candles…”). It felt as though we were on a treasure hunt, and Andrea always had an interesting story to tell me about each person we visited so I feel that we were on target about what “All Soul’s Day” is about.
Andrea's maternal grandfather and grandmother.
All in all, I like the idea of devoting one day a year to celebrate the dead. It must be reassuring to the living to know that one day a year your tombstone and photo will be spiffed up and your loved ones will visit to again celebrate your life. For myself, I anticipate being scattered over a green field to serve as my final resting place so that won’t be in my cards, but for those in Lugo, it is pretty much a sure thing.
A very elaborate family tomb. Beautiful mosaics.