San Michele Cemetery
To Die in Venice:
The Lagoon's Island Graveyard
When the Piazza San Marco has more tourists than pigeons and the No. 1 vaporetto
is wallowing under the weight of its passengers on the Grand Canal, there's one place in
Venice where the crowds are quiet and unobtrusive: the Isola di San Michele, a former
prison island less than five minutes away by water bus.
San Michele is Venice's cemetery--a role it has borne with dignity since the early
1800s, when Napoleon's occupying forces told the Venetians to start hauling their dead
across the water instead of burying them all over town.
A cruise ship for the departed
In The World of Venice, Jan Morris compares the cemetery
island to a ship where "the director stands as proudly in his great graveyard as any
masterful cruiser captain, god-like on his bridge."
"The church at the corner of the island is beautifully cool, austere and
pallid, and is tended by soft-footed Franciscans ... The cemetery itself is wide and calm,
a series of huge gardens, studded with cypress trees and awful monuments.
"Not long ago it consisted of two separate islands, San Michele and San
Cristoforo, but now they have been artificially joined, and the whole area is cluttered
with hundreds of thousands of tombs--some lavishly monumental, with domes and sculputures
and wrought-iron gates, some stacked in high modern terraces, some stacked in high modern
terraces, like filing systems."
The word "cluttered" seems a bit unfair. The Catholic areas of San Michele
are laid out with far greater precision and formality than you'd find in the typical
American or British cemetery. Walls separate the various areas, and the graves lie in neat
(if tightly packed) rows that are separated by walking paths for the convenience of
mourners and visitors.
Here and there, the path leads to a border of contiguous
marble-topped crypts that must be traversed to leave the garden. ("Is it okay to walk
on the tombs, honey?" "I dunno. But we're wearing our rubber-soled shoes, so
maybe the caretaker won't notice.")
Segregation by sect
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