Who and what can you expect to find in Italian cemeteries?

Knowing the differences between US and Italian cemeteries can be helpful to set your expectations when visiting a cemetery in search of your ancestors’ graves.

First difference: the lack of space

Most American cemeteries are vast meadows pointed by tombstones and embellished with trees, like parks.

Most Italian cemeteries are undersized in comparison to the people who must be buried, and there is no way to make them bigger. In Italy, space is an issue.

For this reason, we adopted several rules that limit the use of cemetery space.

For example, only a small portion of the graves are underground. Most of them are wall burials.

In many cases, a family chapel gathers all family tombs on multiple levels

Or the graves of many family members are gathered in a single underground grave, often enriched by artistic artwork

So, using the space vertically and gathering many burials together are two good solutions, but there is another one. A drastic one. Exhumation.

Second difference: the exhumation

It’s sad, it’s heart-breaking, it’s frustrating and disappointing and also cruel but yes: we get rid of old burials!

As said, it’s a matter of space, but the final result is that finding your ancestors’ grave requires some luck.

The general rule is: the town sets tariffs for the burials in the local cemetery. There are tariffs for underground burials, tariffs for wall burials, for urns (cremation is becoming very common, even for a matter of costs), for ossuaries etc.

In addition to this, it sets the duration of burials: 30 years or 50 years or perhaps 10 years.

At the expiry of this concession, the municipality calls the family and proposes several options.

For example, the long-dead relative can be exhumed and his/her remains can be put in a smaller (and cheaper) tomb: an ossuary.

Or it can be exhumed and the remains moved in the same grave with another relative. In this case, usually a plate is added to the main tomb.

Another solution is – if the cemetery rules allow it – to pay for an extension of the concession.

However, if the “family call” fails, the old remains are simply exhumed and laid down in a common ossuary, the last destination of our dear ones, which has the poorest and humblest look. Most often it is only a hole in the ground covered by a stone, without a tombstone, a plate or anything useful to identify our ancestors.

It is to be said, though, that some towns allowed perpetual concessions, especially in the past. In these lucky cases, the oldest graves are as old as the rule set by the town. Usually, this dates back to the beginning of the 20th century or at latest at the end of the 19th century: in Italy, finding a grave which is older than a century requires a lot of luck!

Usually, the oldest graves are those of people born in the 19th century but deceased in the 20th century.

If you read until this point, your frustration probably grew bigger and bigger at any line, but do not give up! Your search for your ancestors’ graves can still be fruitful, and perhaps even luckier than expected!

For example, if the remains of your ancestors were exhumed and moved to a family grave, you may be able to discover all family members at once. In this case, try leaving a message: you may receive a call from your Italian family!

Third difference: the pictures

Ok, you may not find the tombs of your ancestors at all, but if you find them, it is very probable that they carry a portrait of the deceased one: it may be the only one picture of your ancestor you ever saw!

Occasionally, you may find also added info about the deceased person: in the following example, two brothers were WWI casualties and the tombstone reports the circumstances of their death.

Exceptions to the above: if your ancestors were wealthy, famous people or nobles, there is a chance more. In fact, noteworthy people were sometimes buried inside the church, not in the cemetery, and so it may be possible to find them there.

Another possibility is: if your ancestor’s grave was a remarkable artwork, perhaps it was preserved even after the expiry of the concession, for artistic reasons.

Here below, an exception: an old cemetery (19th century) that was not dismantled and it is now a kind of historical park.

I hope this article was useful. If you have doubts or question, feel free to write and ask!