Longoio cemetery stands a little less than half-way on the mule-track between Mobbiano – Longoio’s “twin star”- and Giovanna’s shop at the entrance to San Gemignano. It can, therefore, not be avoided if one is walking to her shop to catch up on essentials like milk, sugar and cat food.
Yesterday, between one shower and the next, we decided to take another look at the cemetery which is reached by two ramps.
At the far centre of the Camposanto (or “holy field” as it’s also known in Italy) is a small chapel used to hold coffins before their interment. It’s built in a vaguely neo-Egyptian style, popular in the nineteenth century with sloping sides and doors, and serves very much the same purpose as a traditional lynch gate in an English churchyard.
Unlike English churchyards, however, each tomb is closely placed to the next rather like a compact housing estate. It’s truly a city of the dead rather than the more expansive areas of suburban-like lawns which characterise English cemeteries.
Formerly, Italian cemeteries were, like English ones, spread around the church and there are still traces of tombstones and gates adjoining churches like that of San Geminiano. However, after the frequent cholera outbreaks of nineteenth century Italy it was deemed unhygienic by the authorities to inhume remains around a place of worship and so cemeteries have been built a little distance away from churches. Each tomb emplacement has also been lined with stone or concrete to avoid the seeping of bodily fluids which occur when corruption of the flesh inevitably starts to happen. Eventually, of course, the bones will be collected and interred into a columbarium, as at Bagni di Lucca cemetery. This explains the disappointment of grave stone inscription readers in Italy since a very small number of stones have survived the sanitary prescriptions the nineteenth century.
Columbarian emplacement has not yet happened at Longoio’s churchyard, presumably because the inhumation rate is not very high and has, indeed, greatly diminished in recent years because of a drastic decline in population mainly due to emigration.
There is still, however, a considerable number of tomb in the cemetery of varying degrees of ornamentation, statuary and even ostentation. There’s one funerary chapel belonging to a family who clearly struck it rich in local commerce (no name mentioned) and there are also modest attempts with gravestones to show both the family’s devotion to their dearly departed ones and to indicate that in this earthly life they didn’t do that badly.
It is with some regret that, after ten years as a resident of Longoio, I am recognising more and more names among those whose final resting place this has become. That’s, of course, the way of life (or death if one prefers) and the number of funerals I have attended here is now reaching double figures.
I wonder when it’ll be my turn. Actually, arrangements have been made for my cremation, now a popular and economic way of disposal, and a place, long bought ago by my foreseeing wife, arranged in a delightfully landscaped south London cemetery.
“Ashes to ashes “and “dust to dust” it may be written, but I would also like to add “country of birth to country of birth”.
I wonder if Keats, now interred near the pyramid of Caius Cestius in the English cemetery at Rome, might have thought the same. Certainly, I don’t think nearby situated Shelley might have harboured the same thought as he virulently abjured his native soil for understandable reasons.
What epitaph might be written on our tombstones?
I wrote a couple for my wife and me some years ago:
This flower, so rare and dear,
parting from the world’s grief,
now blossoms in heaven’s sphere,
endless as life is brief.
He is the sun in our face,
the moon in our dark night,
the new life’s all-giving grace,
the everlasting Light.
In the end does it really matter?