Il giorno dei morti
The Day of the Dead
Italy’s cimiteri (cemeteries) come alive on November 2 (All Souls’ Day), which la Chiesa cattolica (the Catholic church) dedicates alla commemorazione dei defunti (to the commemoration of the deceased). Many Italians travel to their home towns to place fiori, soprattutto crisantemi, e lumini (flowers, especially crysanthemums, and small lights) on the graves of i parenti scomparsi (departed relatives).
A friend explains that this is “non un giorno di lutto, bensì una giornata felice” (not a day of mourning, but instead a happy day) when families share frutta, dolci, cioccolato e caramelle (fruit, sweets, chocolates and caramels) as a way of remembering the deceased and, she contends, of communicating with them without words.
Yet words are what entice me most at Italian cemeteries, which often resemble marble-walled cities of souls. On a recent visit to the centuries-old cemetery at San Miniato in Florence, I read touching tributes to lives that ended too soon.
“Non ti dimenticheremo” (We will not forget you), reads a memorial from 1943. “perché fosti il migliore di noi, perche c’insegnasti ad essere buoni e coraggiosi” (because you were the best of us, because you taught us to be good and courageous).
The family of another young man, Ettore Focardi, who died in 1913, erected one of the most poignant monuments, with these words engraved upon it:
O sfinge indeprecabile
Minaccia e monito
A tutti i mortali
Tu afferri inesorata le tue vittime
La giovine energia dei loro anni
La ricchezza delle loro speranze inadempiute”
(Oh death unforeseen and cruel. Oh sphinx inevitable, menace and warning to all mortals. You seize your victims relentlessly without reckoning the young energy of their years, the richness of their unrealized hopes.)
Amid many monuments praising gallant young men who fought in Italy’s wars, I came upon one for a remarkable woman, Antonia Masanello (1833-1862). This courageous “Garibaldina" dressed as man to battle by her husband's side in the fight for Italian independence and unity led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. The words on her tomb read:
“Era bella. Era piccina ma aveva cor di leone e di soldato.” (She was beautiful. She was tiny but she had the heart of a lion and of a soldier.) "Se non fosse che era donna le spalline avria avute e non la gonna e poserebbe sul funereo letto con la medaglia del valor sul petto." (If she hadn't been born a woman, she would be wearing epaulets instead of a skirt, and she would have been laid to rest with a medal of military valor on her chest.) "Ma che fa la medaglia e tutto il resto? Pugno’ con garibaldi. E basta questo." (But is a medal and all that really important, after all? She fought alongside Garibaldi. That is all that matters!)
The most touching memorial practically brings back to life a handsome young aviator, Mario Mazzone, who was killed in 1944 during the Second World War, and his beautiful wife Maria, who died the following year. While angels weep and shrouded figures mourn on other monuments, Mario, in his military dress uniform, smiles broadly. Maria, with long hair and an elegant gown, radiates joy.
Captured in marble, the two almost-life-sized figures dance on their grave. No words are needed to convey the joy they once lived and the sorrow they left behind.
Words and Expressions
ossa di morto -– literally the bones of the dead, cookies baked for the Day of the Dead in certain regions of Italy
stinchetti dei morti -- cakes called the little shins of the dead, served in Umbria on November 2 to ease any sadness
cimiteri monumentali -- monumental cemeteries, famous for their funerary art
sepolcro -– tomb
condoglianze –- condolences
veglia funebre –- wake
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.