For anyone interested in history, a visit to the local cemetery provides a treasure trove of information about the location and its inhabitants. The Cimitero San Michele in Venice, Italy, is no exception.
Located across the lagoon on the ferry route to the islands of Murano and Burano, few travelers to Venice enter the terracotta brick walls that enclose the cemetery, where tall cypress trees soar into the aquamarine blue Venetian sky cocooning the tombs in a wall of green that also includes laurel, oak, magnolia, and pine trees. Seen from the water, it resembles a floating oasis.
Until the 19th century when Napoleon’s invasion of the city put a stop to the practice, Venetians interred their dead under the paving stones around their neighborhood churches. This made for some macabre situations when the regular flooding of the city brought corpses to the surface.
A dedicated cemetery was clearly required. Initially, the island of San Cristoforo della Pace was chosen, but when it ran out of space, San Michele became the official Venetian cemetery, with hearse boats, or perhaps funeral gondolas, transporting the deceased across the waters to their final resting place. The two islands were joined together by filling in the canal between them. Work continues even today to extend the cemetery further.
In the Middle Ages, the Camaldolese (a branch of Benedictine monks) made the island their home. In 1469 they built a small, white marble church next to their monastery on the edge of the lagoon adding the white-domed Capella Emiliana in the 1530s.
As you disembark from the ferry and enter a world of silence and tranquility, the Chiesa di San Michele (one of the first Renaissance buildings in Venice) with its old monastery is on your left. The 15th-century arches of the cloister open onto a paved courtyard with a wellhead in the center and potted plants around the edges.
The cemetery is ahead of you. Walls separate the various areas. While the Catholic section is the largest, there are also smaller sections for other Christian sects such as the Greek Orthodox and the Protestants.
THE CATHOLIC SECTION
The Catholic section includes small subsections reserved individually for gondoliers, nuns, monks, members of the Armed Forces, and children.
Tombs and family crypts in the Catholic area are tightly packed in neat rows. While each is unique, there are similarities. Almost all include a photo of the deceased, while bouquets of fresh flowers – chrysanthemums, roses, and daisies – fill the vases perched on the tombstones.
As an alternative to the expensive full-sized plots, rows of stacked, filing cabinet-like marble tombs fill one section. A rolling ladder at the end of each row allows people to climb up to leave flowers.
For Italians, cemeteries are places to be visited regularly, to commune with the dearly departed. According to Venetian legend, the visit is returned on All Souls Day (1 November) when spirits are said to float over the lagoon to return to their homes and sit by the fire with the families. It is also the day that brings the highest number of visitors to the cemetery.
Unless a family is wealthy enough to pay for it, gravesites here are not permanent. A law passed in 1995 set the lease limit to either 10 or 20 years depending on the location of the grave or 99 years if burial is in the family crypt. Thereafter, the bones are removed to a communal bone pit.
THE GREEK ORTHODOX AND PROTESTANT SECTIONS
The Protestant and Greek Orthodox sections of the cemetery are not so showered with love. Many tombstones no longer stand upright, while vegetation grows wild, with moss covering many of the stones. Here you will find some famous foreigners.
In the Greek Orthodox section, look for the tomb of Russian composer, pianist, and conductor, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) who never lived in Venice. It was his last wish to be buried in the city near his friend, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), Russian founder of the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky’s wife is also buried here. Fans still leave small mementos on the tombs including a pair of ballet toe shoes and some roses.
In the Protestant section, amongst the tombs of numerous English citizens who adopted Venice as their home, you will find the graves of the American poet, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel Prize winner and Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991 until his death in 1996. A single rose lies across the grave of Ezra Pound, evidence that he is not forgotten.
When Venice becomes overwhelming, with thousands of visitors jostling you on all sides, consider hopping onto the ferry and spending some time wandering the Cimitero San Michele, where an oasis of tranquility filled with history and legends awaits the curious traveler.
IF YOU GO
The Cimitero di San Michele is open from 0730 to 1800 from April to September (0730 to 1630 from October to March).
Take any 4.1 or 4.2 Alilaguna vaporetto from Fondamento Nove and get off at the first stop (Cimitero). When you are ready to leave, board the ferry either towards Fondamento Nove or to Murano and Burano.
Pick up a map at the entrance or download one before you come to find the graves of the famous inhabitants.