Not Trying to be Morbid, but Let's Talk about Death!

Today my host babbo, an Italian word for father, and I went to San Miniato al Monte, just on the other side of the Arno from where we live. The church is famous for its sweeping views over the city and because, under Michelangelo’s suggestion, it was used as a fortress during the siege of Florence in 1530. From the church, which sits high on one of Florence's surrounding hills, you can see the city fan out, radiating from the Duomo at the center. Since I had only known my host father for two days, I was too embarrassed to embrace my inner American tourist and take as many pictures as possible, and I left with no pictures from the experience; however, you can see the view here.

It was a Sunday morning, so a service was just starting as we entered the church. Men in white robes roped off sections of the balcony where visitors can usually roam around. Instead of going up, we ducked down into the crypt, the oldest part of the church. The crypt is composed of a low ceiling held up by columns imported from Rome and is supposedly where the remains of San Miniato are kept. San Miniato is thought historically to be an Armenian prince turned hermit, who became a martyr for Christianity when he was beheaded for his faith. It is said that after the beheading, San Miniato picked up his head and carried it across the Arno, finally resting at the top of the hill where the church sits today. Bearing witness to this miracle is supposedly the reason why many Florentines converted to Christianity.

While the church was spectacular, what I found surprisingly more beautiful was the cemetery. The cemetery wraps around the church in a U-shaped fashion, and it is the final resting place for several famous Italians, including Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio. One section of the cemetery in particular caught my eye. At the front of the church on the right, there lies an inlet where tombs are stacked behind three tall walls adorned with white, marble nameplates organized in neat columns. Blooming flowers of every color surrounded each nameplate. Small electric candles had also been placed in between the flowers, illuminating each name and bringing warmth to the area. The colors of the flowers against the stark white nameplates created a beautiful celebration of life and creation, instead of the typical somber feelings that cemeteries produce.

My host dad pointed proudly at one nameplate and told me it was his parents, buried together. Their names were enveloped in pink and yellow roses and I couldn't help but think how pretty it all was. This was not a place of loss. My host babbo likes to ask many questions about America. After pointing out his parents’ nameplate, he turned to me and said, "Tutti glib americani sono sepolti, giusto?" "Si, sono sepolti o cremati," I replied. He made a face, which I first took as disgust, but he continued instead to explain that an ancient law in Florence allows people to be cremated, but not to be placed anywhere besides a cemetery. He swept his hand back, gesturing at the wall of nameplates, and explained that most people in this cemetery had been cremated, but still had a tomb like anyone else. Many people want their ashes scattered in nature or preserved by their family, but because of the law, they must be entombed in a cemetery.

This distinction in burial customs is fascinating because when people compare cultures, they often jump to the easy comparison of food or music, but a community's approach towards death and the afterlife speaks magnitudes about its culture as well. The law is in place because the Florentine community believes in sticking together, even after death. The law is not in place to restrict people, but to keep in place the bond of the community. The cemeteries are a place to celebrate the lives of their fellow Florentines instead of mourning them. As the flowers bloom around forgotten names, new life is breathed into old ones, and it is not hard to feel the love still present.

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