Nonno Giovanni’s body will be exhumed the day after tomorrow. His coffin has been in the ground for sixteen years and unearthing corpses is the law. Space is at a premium in Italian cemeteries, has been for decades. Space is at a premium in every cemetery, I realise that. Room must be made for the next body, I understand. Still, the way burial works here is very upsetting and as I am not Italian, I am struggling with the ritual that awaits us on Wednesday.
As a general rule of thumb, burial in Italy works like this. Every cemetery is divided up into sections and you rent a section, or grave plot, of that cemetery for ten years. Then, when the Council of Cemeteries, or whatever it is, deem it the right time, the body of your loved one is exhumed, their bones retrieved and put in an ossuary. That little bone box is put into the cemetery wall. You know Italian cemeteries, where the walls are high and have levels and levels names and faces in photos. All the little boxes in the wall are adorned with photos and vases of flowers. The individual boxes have eternal lights – battery run flames that twinkle like fireflies in their thousands in the darkness.
For years Italians have looked at me as though I come from a sacrilegious land because in my country we practise the heretical custom of cremating. ‘Oh Dio!’ they say ‘Oh God!’ ‘No, no, no, I would not like to be burnt to ashes and scattered. In Italy we prefer to be buried, in our favourite clothes. We are dust to dust.’
Burying bodies comes from Genesis 3:19. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
But this practise of ‘bringing up the body’ is taking its toll on my family this week. Has grandpa Giovanni’s body rotted entirely? Has his wooden coffin deteriorated fully? Will his teeth, hair, best suit have survived the fifteen years that he’s been in the ground? How much of nonno is still there? These are all questions we are asking ourselves as we prepare to go to Consuma and witness the event. Apparently it is not uncommon to exhume bodies and find them intact. Now, that’s when I scream ‘Oh Dio!’
My husband is dreading Wednesday’s ordeal. A family member, by law, must be present for the exhumation. I have promised to accompany my husband to his family village of Consuma so that when his papa’, Giovanni Consumi, is unearthed I can give him moral support. For a child, it’s as though their father is dying all over again. It’s as if my husband has to go through his dad’s death not once, but twice. My husband is upset, concerned, he doesn’t want to go to see his father’s body dug up. I don’t blame him. Would you? Who could want to see their father’s body, or bones, or whatever is left of him fifteen years after death?
Nonna will be there too. She is quite accepting of it all. ‘There is life and there is death,’ she says. ‘This is the journey of death.’ Yes, but how many times do you have to travel that road? However, she too admits she is upset.
In Italy the dead are respected, honoured. Loved ones are visited, prayed for, consulted and chatted to. November 1st is All Saints Day or Il Giorno della Morte, (the day of the dead) and it’s a special day dedicated to the dear departed. November 1st is when you visit your loved ones in cemeteries. It’s a public holiday and Italians travel across Italy to visit their dead. We don’t do that in Anglo Saxon society and I’ve often said we should remember our deceased the way the Italians do. But I sure am glad I don’t have to be present when my loved one’s bodies are exhumed and have that moment as my last memory of them.