Thursday, May 17, 2012

An Overflow of Corpses

By Patricia Winton

A couple of months ago, the mayor of Falciano del Massico in southern Italy issued a proclamation forbidding the residents to die. His wry action focused on a local problem, but it highlights one existing throughout the Italian peninsula—a land where people have lived and died for several millennia: What do you do with the corpses?

Previously shared cemetery
Falciano del Massico’s problem began fifty years ago when boundaries between two towns were redrawn leaving the previously shared cemetery in the town of Carinola. Citizens from both towns continued to bury their dead there until it filled up. The two towns have been feuding since about where to put Falciano del Massico’s dead while the town sought to build its own cemetery. Fed up with delays, the mayor signed his proclamation in hopes of speeding up the process of obtaining the necessary permits, funding, etc. And while the town still awaits resolution, a few citizens have disobeyed the mayor’s edict.

Where to put the dead is a problem facing many Italian cities and towns. A common solution limits the amount of time a body can actually remain underground. The time varies by local decree, but it can be as short as eight years, such as in Venice, or as long as twenty-five, such as in Voghera, a small city near Milan. After that, the remains are dug up and removed to another site. (Read about Carlin Romano’s discovery that his father had been exhumed and moved without his knowledge here.) The wealthy can pay extra for longer repose.

Magdalen Nabb's delicious mystery, Death of a Dutchman, uses the inevitable disinterment of someone after ten years in a Florentine cemetery to provide the clue that Marshall Guarnaccia must puzzle over to find the murderer.

Loculi in Venice
The disposition of the remains after they have been disinterred also varies by locale. Until about fifty years ago, for example, bones exhumed at Venice’s San Michele cemetery island were unceremoniously dumped on the nearby Sant’ Ariano island. Other places had similar mass repositories.

Today, the bones are usually removed from the grave and transferred to a small metal box and placed in chambers called loculi, niches. Because Italians don’t embalm the dead, insects will have done their work after eight or ten years, so only skeletal remains, which require less space, are left. The loculi rise in stacks  and the cemeteries provide movable ladders for climbing to those in upper rows. Like headstones, the loculi usually display a photo of the departed. The exterior may be embellished with crucifixes or images of the Madonna. Some families add perpetual lights and vases for flowers. Others light candles in red cylindrical holders and bring potted plants.

Even these small loculi do not always fill the need. In the town of Putignano, for example, there is a twelve-year wait with almost eight hundred requests for loculi space outstanding.

And lest this focus on the practicality of dealing with the remains suggests a lack of respect for the dead, let me disavow you of that thought. People spare no expense for funerals, which are open to the community. People celebrate the life of the departed. They light candles; they mass flowers—chrysanthemums are the flowers of the dead; they fill the coffin with the deceased’s favorite possessions—even jewelry.

Remembrance of the Dead
And the whole country honors the dead on November 2, Commemerizaione dei Defunti, Remembrance of the Dead. People travel to cemeteries bringing chrysanthemums and candles; they travel to distant villages to honor ancestors; they participate in secular-religious ceremonies; they eat celebratory meals. It can be like a big family reunion.

I blog on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues.


  1. Wow! What a fascinating thing; I've seen photos of loculi but had no idea what they represented. Thanks for this view~

  2. I've always said we need to start cremating folks - we can't keep burying them when they'll eventually outnumber us. The problem is that religious views generally dictate what can happen with a deceased body. Great post...very interesting! I'm intrigued to read the mystery where this was a pivotal point now.

    1. Italy doesn't have many cremations because the Catholic church frowns on it. In Venice, there are laws controlling the disposition of the ashes. They can only be scattered at a certain point offshore, and there is a large fee involved.

  3. Yes, the only word I have for this is fascinating, too.

  4. So interesting. I wonder what the reasoning is against cremation, I'll have to look that up.

    1. It is interesting, isn't. I've never visited the cemetery at San Michele in Venice, but I'm going there in June. I hope to learn a bit more about how cremated remains are actually scattered. I know it's some distance from shore and is closely regulated.