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San Michele Cemetery

To Die in Venice: The Venetian Lagoon's Island Graveyard

Isola di San Michele with speedboat

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."

San Michele TombstonesThe 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.")

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