And the cemetery was walled, like all here in Italy, the approach road lined by the mourning cypresses, the barred gates open, revealing the necropolis inside, a citadel within the city.
It was a small Italian town cemetery, retaining a certain provincial dignity, unlike the large cemetery in Rome where my wife's twin is buried, with its own streets, surrounded by flower hawkers and vendors of tacky mementos. None of that commerce disgraced this place.
We parked and entered.
Inside, old graves near the entrance had now been cleared out, the remains moved to the niches or ossuary after twenty years, recycling the space needed for newcomers, and now there were new graves here, high maintenance graves, each in a manicured plot like a raised bed garden, each plot with its own six inch wall of marble or facsimile, each with a cross of different style, each with a laminated photograph of the departed - old, middle-aged or young, depending on one's vanity I guessed, as some did not match the apparent age at death.
I thought of one particular old grave that had been removed, a man about seventy at death as I recall, but with a photograph taken perhaps in the 1930's when he was a young boy. Outfitted as a B-movie cowboy, he crouched in a gun-fighting stance, cap pistols blazing away. I always enjoyed seeing that one, this young boy living in the false grandeur of Il Duce and dreaming of a romantic life half a world away. Knowing of the horrors of war to follow, I presumed this was the best time of his life, a happy youthful memory to be treasured.
It was a Christian cemetery. There were no Jews here, I think, but certainly plenty of atheists, if the Italian men I knew were representative samples. Still, even with all their blustering at the tyranny of the church, they do not refuse the last sacraments and are laid to rest as Christians, the most prodigal of prodigal sons, slipping in the door at the last second. It's so Italian.
Our seventy year old feet crunched, crunched, crunched on the crushed white marble pathways in the grave section, the paths radiating out like spokes from the two-tier central fountain. It had been almost four years, but our feet remembered the rounds, save one.
My wife's aunt had passed since then. A widow for many years, she and her young daughter had witnessed the death of her husband as he returned from work on his motorcycle many years ago, struck by an American airman in an automobile passing him as he turned into the driveway. She slowly destroyed herself with alcoholism, the youngest of the six sisters. She was laid in the newly recycled section. Her grave was still well tended by her daughter. We placed some new silk flowers in the holder.
Now to my mother-in-law's grave. It needed tending. Over three years of neglect. I felt some shame, seeing the finely manicured graves neighboring hers, with beautiful plants and ornaments surely cared for on a weekly basis. But also some resentment at this burden she had bequeathed, as she had insisted on being buried in a grave in her will. The burden fell on my poor wife, now an American citizen for many years, the daughter this somewhat vain, fatuous woman had cared least for, less attractive than the other two, according to her.
I disagreed. My wife had twice the brains and ten times the class. The other living sister, in Rome, after spending all her mother's savings, never even came to her mother's funeral. My mother-in law was a good grandmother though. For that I give her credit.
Poor woman, she had died of the same illness that took my wife's twin sister. We were with her here in Italy until the end. I used to massage her feet and legs in the hospital. She was wrong about many things. One day, she told me that I was not worthy of her daughter. That one she got right.
We pulled the weeds, cleaned up the grave as much as we could, and replaced the flowers.
Grave duty, the ancient burden that women have carried for millenia. Men also visit graves, but this constant tending of graves year after year after year, epitomizes the general sense of duty women possess and practice, and is the essence of the fabric that holds this ancient civilization together, I think.
Still, I find this custom a macabre relic. Cremate me or bury me in the desert in an unmarked grave like a Muslim, thank you. I care not a fig to leave this burden on my loved ones, even for the small solace it might grant them in the beginning. I understand this sentiment, even once visiting the place where a friend's ashes had been scattered, having missed the event itself. But once was enough.
We moved on.
A short distance away, we view the grave of a male cousin of my mother-in-law. Youthful partners in crime, the two cousins had many adventures together and had been great friends still in old age.
A partisan during the Nazi occupation, he told me horrific stories, how the Germans had locked up some old people and children in a house and blew it up just two days before they retreated. He showed me the place, as well as the wall in town to which they marched captive partisans, lined them up and shot them as examples. The bullet holes are still there as a reminder. In any case, he apparently liquidated his share of them, too. They are not fond of the Germans in this area.
There were many old unsettled grudges here. All families had members on both sides, some collaborators, some partisans. Sometimes one Fascist brother saved a Communist brother’s life only to have the favor returned later after Fascism was overturned. Family loyalty was usually stronger than politics in Italy. Except when money was involved.
The graveyard of the cemetery was bordered by family mausoleums, those of high station, the name of the families prominently carved on the facades, declaring their superior social status even after death. Here, in engraved niches, lay the powerful and their offspring, at least the legal ones. Their bastards borne by their servants were buried elsewhere, I presumed.
Beyond the mausoleums, two stories of niches formed semicircles on each side of the cemetery, one story above ground, and one underground, like the catacombs in Rome, but well lit by sunlight and maintained, with marble floors and attractive cubbyholes for the deceased with a built-in vase for flowers and an electric candle for a yearly fee. Our footsteps echoed, echoed on the marble floors. Her father's remains occupied a niche in a corner area.
Here we are. Poor man. Short with a slight build like my wife, they were alike in so many ways. Like her, he was energetic, smart and affable. He got along with everyone, a man who never met a stranger.
So unlike the other people in this town who wished no more than to live, work, and die in this one spot, he was an adventurous type, working overseas and in various cities. His trusting nature had caused him many problems, though. Lucky in some ways, too, although not in love.
He had been sent to the Russian front in the war, along with over 200,000 comrades and was one of the few to return whole. He had traveled the world, even to America with us for a few years, and yet here he was, returned again, like so many, his roots sucking him back into the final family reunion like a giant black hole.
I could sense the ancient roots sucking at my wife, too. I could read the unspoken conversation her expressive face was having with her parent's remains. So many things left unsaid, so many questions never asked. I watched her eyes looking at the unoccupied niches next to her father's. I knew what she was thinking.
“Let her go!”, my mind shouted. “She is an American now, free of your pagan practices thinly painted over with Catholic ritual!”
Her eyes cleared. Duty called.
His place was high on the wall. We pushed a wheeled ladder over and cleaned up the niche, changing the flowers now covered in dust.
A short walk around to see grandparents and great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles. So many of the same surnames on these walls. More inbreeding than Appalachia, I thought.
The reunion was over.
Some things never change.