Strange Geographies: Death in Venice

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If you've got the money, you can live in Venice. If you're a romantic, you can die in Venice. But you cannot be buried in Venice. That rule was adopted in 1807, when Napoleon's inspectors surveyed the sorry state of parish plots scattered across the city and decided that it was unsanitary to bury people in Venice proper, a city where you can't dig more than a few feet without hitting water (or wooden pylons, or sand). Elected as an alternative was the nearby island of San Michele, formerly a prison, which today houses dead Venetians packed heel-to-toe by the hundreds of thousands -- many times the current living population of Venice. Grassy lanes shaded with rows of cypress and a distinct lack of crowds make it one of the most peaceful spots in the lagoon to spend an afternoon; even though it's just one stop from one of Venice's busiest vaporetto (waterbus) hubs, it feels very far from the tourist trail.

Approaching by water from Venice, the island's marvelous walls and gates (above) make it look like some kind of floating fortress. The vaporetto lets you off at a chink in the gate, and you enter to find this Roman-looking semi-circle of mausoleums.

Despite their proud exterior, the first one I peeked into was in a sorry state.

As was this one, although there's something grand about climbing vines -- even wild, unintentional ones.

They dug down a level to build this one, which may have seemed like a good idea at the time -- until it rained. Now a permanent layer of slippery green slime coats the landing.

The cemetery is divided into strictly segregated sections. There's one for Catholics and another for Protestants. There's a section for priests and one for nuns.

There's a section for soldiers and one for sailors.

Gently-curving walls and small chapels separate the sections and prevent visual overload; if you could see straight from one end of the island to the other -- a hundred thousand graves and tombs and mausoleums all at once -- it would make you dizzy.

I went to San Michele expecting to find the whole place in a state of graceful decay, not unlike Venice itself. While that wasn't universally the case, certain humble sections of the cemetery are more tumbledown than others, like this one, where many of the markers are made from wood.

Or here, where wildflowers grow up around leaning stones.

The Italians seem to love putting photographs on their graves.

But my favorites are the faces worn away by time and weather.

There aren't a lot of old graves on San Michele, because only the very wealthy can afford to keep their plots for more than a few decades. Space in these shallow plots is at such a premium that after a certain length of time occupants are dug up and their bones transferred to metal boxes for storage in smaller quarters.

Until about fifty years ago, those who couldn't afford a small annual maintenance fee were disinterred and evicted from San Michele altogether, to the "Island of Bones," Sant' Ariano, though it's now mostly just overgrown mounds of dirt (though it's said you can still find bones if you scrabble around in the soil).

On the far end of the island are newer mausoleums, many of which are really stunning -- architectural marvels unto themselves -- and which no doubt cost a pretty penny.

Nice, right? Sign me up!

Seagulls rule the cemetery. There's always one watching you from some high-altitude perch. This one was screeching at me, and I couldn't figure out why ...

... until I saw this atop a nearby tomb.

There are fresh flowers and well-tended plants everywhere. I expected to find a small army of gardeners, but the only person I saw paying attention to the greenery was this old man -- an army of one.

Here's where he keeps those watering cans.

Nestled in the vines on the wall was a solitary gardener's glove.

Evidence of the work that goes into this place was hiding everywhere.

A broom and a weird mural.

There are lots of fancy people buried here, like Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky. Their graves are well-marked, and are probably the reason any tourists come here at all.

True to form, the architecturally adventurous Italians have made dying in Venice nearly as appealing as living there. If you're in the city and have an afternoon to spare, I'd highly recommend a visit.

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

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May 16, 2010 - 8:12pm
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