June 2, 2012

Memento Mori

In Every Day in Tuscany I devoted a chapter to the cemetery under the town walls of Cortona. To me, nothing other that how food is presented at the table–who’s there, what’s the conversation, where did the food come from, how was it prepared–reveals as much about a culture as how the dead are buried.  When someone dies, the news is posted on boards at several locations around town. It’s touching to see the old names: Assunta (named after the assumption), Lazzaro (Lazarus), Primo (the first child). You know the babies born now are not being given those names. Sometimes you see a Benito, a namesake of Mussolini.

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Everyone stops to read the death notices. Even if you know no one, they serve as a daily carpe diem. At the cemetery just below town, a photo of the departed adorns each grave, and that more than anything gives testament to life ongoing in memory.  The inhabitant of the grave is captured in a moment that testifies to the life that was lived.  Maybe it’s a three-year-old in a flouncy dress, or a seasoned old man raising a glass of wine, or a lovely young woman on a sailboat, the wind in her hair. This child died during World War I; at some point he was handed a gun.

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The dead live out eternity in the same way they did in the streets of Cortona: close together. The cemetery is surrounded by walls of drawers. Tall rolling ladders allow you to climb and tend to your relatives who are ensconced in the top rows.

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Outside the walls is the field for us infidels not baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Its a weedy, neglected affair but somehow preferable to me, probably because my own relatives lie in Fitzgerald Georgia in the Mayes plot with its marble rim and the tombstones spread out for a little space in death.

On Cortona’s back wall are the memorials to those who died in a diptheria epidemic. (I translated some of the epitaphs in Every Day in Tuscany, and as I recall one was quite mysterious and odd.) Most mysterious are the private family chapels. This one’s door is left ajar, inviting you into the gloom.

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I have certain graves that I visit, as though I knew them. This jaunty soldier in cavalry plume died on the Russian Front in World War II. Such a haunting smile for one who met such a fate.

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Most emphatically, it’s the flowers that speak of how the Tuscans relate to their dead. On Saturday afternoon, many make the walk downhill to adorn the loved one’s grave with an armful of flowers so that the dear one does not face Sunday without the solace of remembrance. No dinky pots from the grocery store–abundant lilies, roses, peonies.

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At night, looking down from the Duomo in town, you see below the square boundaries of the cemetery. Red votive candles glow on the graves. I imagine muffled voices talking, talking just as they used to in the piazza.