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San Michele Cemetery

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San Michele Cemetery mausoleums

ABOVE: Mausoleums at the San Michele island cemetery. INSET BELOW: Venetians visit family members' graves during All Saints' Week.

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Death may be permanent, but San Michele is so crowded that graves are on short-term lease.

San Michele Cemetery - All Saint's DayThe bodies in each row of graves are allowed to decompose for twelve years, at which point they're dug up. Occupants whose families can pay for reinterment are transferred to small metal boxes for permanent storage in smaller quarters. The less well-heeled get tossed into a nearby boneyard.

In the old days, bones were dumped on the ossuary island of Sant'Ariano, which Michael Dibdin describes in his novel Dead Lagoon:

"...The surface inside was much higher, almost level with the top of the wall. Giacomo stepped down and started to push his way through the undergrowth, following a series of almost imperceptible markers: the torn ligaments of a branch dangling from a bush, a patch of flattened grass, the sucker of a bramble bush, thick as a squid's tentacle, lopped off clean by a fisherman's gutting-knife. The ground crunched and slithered underfoot, as though he were walking on layers of broken crockery.

"A sudden scuttling noise brought him to a halt, wielding his torch-beam like a staff. The island was infested with snakes, and Giacomo tried with limited success to convince himself that this was the only feature of the place that scared him."

How to reach San Michele

If you're dead, the undertaker will deliver you to the cemetery by aquatic hearse (or by funeral gondola if your survivors have a flair for the dramatic).

Vaporetto to San MicheleFor a more temporary visit, catch the No. 41 or 42 vaporetto at the Fondamenta Nuove platform. Get off the boat at the first stop. After you've visited San Michele, you might want to continue on to Murano, the glass island, via the same waterbus line.

Book suggestion: 

Permanent Italians, a trade paperback by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall, has a chapter on the late and the great who are buried or entombed in Venice.

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