San Michele Cemetery
To Die in Venice: The Venetian 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 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
Most of San Michele's acreage is reserved for Catholics--a fact that's hardly surprising in a country where Roman Catholics, practicing or otherwise, make up the vast majority of the population.
In Venice: The Art of Living, Frédéric Viteaux describes the Catholic cemetery during All Saints' Week:
The island has two mini-graveyards for other Christian sects: the Greci or Greek Orthodox cemetery, where Igor Stravisky and Sergei Diaghilev are buried; and the Protestant graveyard, whose most famous resident is Ezra Pound.
(Jews have their own cemetery on the Lido, Venice's resort island.)
In contrast to the formal and beautifully tended Catholic gardens of graves, the Greci and Protestant sections have an atmosphere of rustic decay.
Some tombstones are covered in moss; a few lean at precipitous angles; several have keeled over in a parody of those whose deaths they commemorate.
The occasional English epitaph reminds visitors of a time when the British upper classes regarded Venice as a home away from home.
The most famous inscription honors a Staffordshire man who was said to have "Left us in peace, Febry 2, 1910."
"Your checkout time is 2029"
Death may be permanent, but San Michele is so crowded that graves are on short-term lease. The 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:
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).
For a more temporary visit, catch the No. 41 or 42 vaporetto at the Fondamenta Nuove platform.
Get off the boat at the first stop, "Cimitero."
After you've visited San Michele, you might want to continue on to Murano, the glass island, via the same waterbus line.
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.
Copyright © 1996-2021 Durant & Cheryl Imboden.