Italy’s Day of the Dead

The urns of strong men stimulate strong minds

To deeds of great distinction O Pindemonte

And these urns make sacred for the traveller that earth which holds them

– Ugo Foscolo, Of the Sepulchres, 1807 –

IMG_5866P1090717IMG_5900I have always felt drawn to cemeteries. Whenever I go to the resting places of loved ones, I nearly always insist on staying longer to visit the burial sites of those nearby. They fascinate me with their names, dates and commemorative messages inscribed in their honour. I infer a lot about their lives and sadly, in some cases, deaths, from the information on the plaques. Illnesses or accidents that put a premature end to young lives. Personal, local and world events they lived through. Technological changes they witnessed. I then gasp when I make that inevitable realisation; these were people who lived and breathed just like me.

IMG_5873P1090718When I was younger, this reminder about mortality frightened me. With All Saints and All Souls Days rapidly approaching though, I’ve found myself reflecting on the lesson going to the cemetery taught me. I am not particularly religious. I do concede though that there is something special about Italian funerary art and moving about the commemorative customs characterising these Catholic feast days.

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P1090681Each Italian village, town and city is home to a monumental cemetery run by the local council. These walled enclosures are located outside the historic centres, as per the 1804 Edict of Saint-Cloud which forbade burials in church graveyards within town walls [i]. With their multi-storied blocks of marble-plaqued vaults, they are veritable necropolises or cities of the dead. Home to funerary art and architecture  representing a variety of artistic and architectural periods since Napoleon’s decree, some cimiteri monumentali [ii] are breathtakingly beautiful. Every 1st November (All Saints Day), a public holiday, their grounds fill up with visitors bringing flowers to the graves of their deceased relatives. The following day (All Souls Day),  candles are lit for i defunti (‘the dead’) who are said to have returned for the day.

P1090694P1090735Rituals on these feast days are not limited to the churches and cemeteries. In Sicily, many children still look for presents – in the past these were in the form of frutta martorana (surreally colourful marzipan sweets made to look like fruits and vegetables) – around their homes hidden by the defunti. Gestures, moreover, are made to accommodate relatives visiting their old haunts with many families leaving lights on at night and setting an extra place at the table. On that table, symbolic offerings of food and drink, generally glasses of water and sweets, are laid out. Tired and weary after their journey from the underworld, the dead will be in need of replenishment.

P1090705P1090721Before Christianity, pagan food offerings in Ancient Rome were savoury beans. Later on, this practice was taken up by Christians. At some point though, the offerings took on a less savoury note and became sweet breads and biscuits.  The biscuits can be rather macabre-looking as they are often made to resemble the ossa dei morti or ‘bones of the dead’ in shape and, in some cases, consistency. Sicilian ‘bones’, made with almonds and flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, are renowned for being particularly hard to bite into! The Piedmontese interpretation of these ‘bones’ are chewy macaroon-like biscuits, made with flour, sugar, eggs, butter, almonds and/or hazelnuts called ossa da mordere or ‘bones to bite on’). Here is a recipe for them from the town of Borgomanero:

Ossa da mordere piemontesi

Ingredients (makes about 20-25 ‘bones’)

  • 320 g flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 200 g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
  • 400 g caster sugar
  • 3 egg whites
  • A pinch of salt
  • 30 g butter, melted
  • Lemon juice from half a lemon

 Method:

  • Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, chopped hazelnuts and sugar.
  • Beat egg whites and pinch of salt until stiff white peaks form.
  • Add lemon juice, melted butter and egg whites to mixing bowl and combine wet and dry ingredients carefully.
  • Dust hands and a clean working surface with flour and knead biscuit mixture until obtaining a firm and smooth ball of dough.
  • Divide dough into four equal sized balls. Roll each ball into a long snake-like shape. Cut snakes into pieces 5-7 cm long and shape them into ‘bones’.
  • Place ‘bones’ on a lined baking tray, ensuring that they are no too close to each other.
  • Bake bones for 20-25 minutes or until a nice golden colour.
  • Remove from oven and leave to cool before serving.

[i] The edict also stipulated that, for democratic reasons, all tombs had to be equal in size with inscriptions to be controlled by a special commission. Ugo Foscolo, the poet quoted above, was critical of the decree. Although an atheist and generally supportive of French revolutionary principles,  he felt all human beings aspire to transcend death and that the monuments and tombs of ‘great men’ serve to inspire the living to ‘great deeds’.

[ii] For more information about monumental cemeteries worth visiting in Italy, I recommend this article from Italy Magazine: http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/top-ten-italian-monumental-cemeteries

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12 comments

    I’d love to try these next Halloween! We’re big fans of Halloween/Day of the Dead. In Mexico it’s a huge deal and I’ve been told they also have picnics at Cemeteries. So while people think we (my mom, sister and myself) are a bit odd because we love skeletons and such.. it’s just the mexican in us!

    If you like chewy biscuits that are hard to bite into then you should definitely try this recipe. I’ve heard a bit about Mexican customs on the Day of the Dead such as picnicking at cemeteries. If you’re not aware of the meaning behind the day (i.e. the dead returning for the day) then it may seem odd. I’ve always found the rituals on the day really moving though and look forward to visiting the cemetery on All Saints Day with TP and his family.

    This is a great article Rosemarie – beautifully written, informative, thought provoking and enjoyable to read. Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Thank you Dad for reading (and for taking me to the cemetery when I was younger). It’s a day I’ve really come to love here and I’ve been wanting to write about it for a long time now.

    Thanks Diana. I took the photos at the Cimitero Monumentale di Torino and the Campo Cestio Cemetery in Rome (not a monumental cemetery run by the municipality but a private one). Truly beautiful, peaceful places. I’d love to pay a visit to the other cemeteries cited by Italy Magazine one day.

    One of my favourite places on Earth is the Protestant cemetery just off of Testaccio in Rome. It’s such a peaceful, lush and beautiful place to go to for contemplation and quietness. I love these cookies – I like anything with hazelnuts, really, so I can’t wait to try them. In the Veneto, we make fave dei morti with alchermès – they have a light pink hue and tend to be quite hard, so they are best dipped in some sweet wine…

    They are incredibly hard to bite into, aren’t they? I’ve been dipping them into my caffé latte for breakfast. I do like the sound of using Alchermes to make them. I finally went to the cemetery in Testaccio last weekend. My husband commented on how different it was from the monumental cemeteries. So much greenery, really close to nature. I’d really love to see the island cemetery of San Michele in the Venetian lagoon too one day. Have you been?

    I am so pleased to have come across your blog. Your photography is outstanding – so evocative and inspiring. Italian cemeteries do look quite different, don’t they? If you have a chance, visit the cemetery of Venice, which is on an island of its own. Another one which is quite amazing with its architecture and stained glass is La Madeleine in Amiens in France, where Jules Verne is buried. Sorry, I didn’t mean for this to become such a macabre comment. I will keep following your writing. Best wishes, Rossi

    Thank you for visiting and your lovely feedback. I’ve only just started using a DSLR camera to be honest and they certainly make a difference. Still got lots to learn though.Also, thank you for your tips on other cemeteries to visit. I’d heard that San Michele cemetery in Venice was rather special but I knew nothing about La Madeleine in Amiens. I’m also very pleased to have found your blog and look forward to reading more posts and beautiful photos from your travels and life in Italy now that you are based in Vicenza. 🙂 Rosemarie

    Lovely blog – especially the photos and so fitting for Halloween 🙂
    I’ve taken quite a few photos of cemeteries over the years and never really thought to post any of them… thanks for the inspiration, Happy Halloween 🙂

    Thank you for visiting. In a way, I felt a bit strange taking photos in a cemetery but I’d been wanting to post about All Saints/Souls Days and the Italian custom of visiting cemeteries on these days for awhile so in the end, I decided it was appropriate. Plus, they really are beautiful and peaceful places. Happy Halloween to you too!

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