The Italian Cemetery Question

A couple of months ago, my mother asked me a question that reignited a search into my Italian ancestry that has yielded some exciting results. I’ll share the exciting results in another post, but first I want to lay out her question (i.e. the context for the Internet search that brought me to the treasures I found later) as well as the answer I located.

So one day in early July, Mom called to ask me a genealogy question. She said she was sitting there chatting with two of my Dad’s sisters (aunts on my Italian side of the family), and they had gotten onto the subject of genealogy and were wondering about the father of my great-grandfather Quinto. The ancestor in question is named Antonio Pasquinelli. Mom said she seemed to recall that when I had visited relatives in Italy in 2004 (ten years ago – wow), I asked them to take me to the cemetery but he wasn’t there anymore and she couldn’t remember the rest of the story, so she was calling to ask.

Ah yes. That was quite the let-down.

Having been engaged in genealogical research in the United States for almost 10 years already at the time of that trip, I had always found cemeteries to be a veritable gold mine of information. Families are often buried together, as you probably know, and so if you find one, you’ll likely find others, with names and dates to go along with them (and if you’re really lucky, maybe some relationship explanations like “son” or “mother” right on the stone).

My great-grandfather Quinto died and was buried in Ohio, but I had my sights set on his parents, Antonio and Benedetta, neither of whom (as far as I know) ever even visited America. And seeing as I didn’t have the slightest clue how to request Italian records (or what to request or where- although come to think of it, that might have been a good or even better thing to ask the relatives while I was there), much less that comparatively very little was online in those days (especially international records), visiting the cemetery seemed like a sound strategy to potentially find a lot of information quickly and easily.

So at my request, our relatives took us to the cemetery where our other relatives were buried. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even know exactly which cemetery they took us to (why did I not write that down?! for shame, genealogist!), but it wasn’t far so it must have been within the province of Pistoia (where we were & where my ancestors lived).

And when we got there, they showed us the graves of the available relatives, one of whom was their mother/grandmother Parigina (or “Genni” for short), who was my great-grandfather Quinto’s baby sister:

Renato and Genni Sali cemetery marker, somewhere in Pistoia, 2004

Renato and Genni Sali cemetery marker, somewhere in Pistoia, 2004

I have a few other photographs of graves that they showed us or names that I recognized. I don’t really know who most of these people are though. And I unfortunately I don’t seem to have a wide shot of the entire cemetery. (I either didn’t take one, or it was a casualty of the camera difficulties we had on that trip. We still had only film cameras with us at the time, so we had no way of knowing that half the shots weren’t coming out…but that’s another story.)

You can get a little bit of a sense of the way the cemetery looked from these pictures:

Irene Sali grave

Irene Sali grave

Palmira Pasquinelli grave

Palmira Pasquinelli grave

It’s a far cry from the look of most of the cemeteries (most of which are in Ohio) that I have visited:

Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2011 (Photo by the author)

Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2011 (Photo by the author)

Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio, 2013 (photo by the author)

Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio, 2013 (photo by the author)

St. John's Cemetery, Wheelersburg, Ohio, 2011 (photo by the author)

St. John’s Cemetery, Wheelersburg, Ohio, 2011 (photo by the author)

Carroll Cemetery, Olive Hill, Kentucky, 2004 (photo by the author)

Carroll Cemetery, Olive Hill, Kentucky, 2004 (photo by the author)

Ah, sweet, glorious Midwestern space.

So having seen how crowded that Italian cemetery was and knowing, well, anything at all about Europe and its population density, I probably should not have been so surprised (which would have lessened the disappointment, though that itself still seems valid) at what happened next.

I politely checked out the graves that they showed me (above), and then I asked about Antonio and Benedetta. Where were Parigina’s parents? I asked.

They responded that they’re not here…anymore.

Say again? Wait. So they were here…but they’re not anymore?

Looking back now, I’m not even 100% sure that we were all on the same page as to whether this particular couple I was looking for ever was buried in that particular cemetery, but however the conversation went, they understood who I was asking about and what I was asking to see — but the fact remained the same: We can’t take you to see where they’re buried, because they’re not buried there anymore.

I think then the gist was conveyed to me that you don’t keep a burial plot indefinitely in Italy. You basically rent it.

That much I got from my relatives in 2004. But my mother’s question to me two months ago was: Well, OK, so after your lease is up on your final resting place, then what happens? I told her I didn’t know. I guessed it might involve cremation of whatever was left, but I really didn’t know…

I have since acquired a couple of guide books on Italian genealogy: Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research (by Trafford Cole, 1995) and Finding Your Italian Roots: The Complete Guide for Americans, 2nd. ed. (by John Colletta, 2009). These books have been very helpful and informative.

Cole’s explanation (from pp. 115-116) is better than anything I could hope to paraphrase (and describes with pretty much eerie accuracy exactly my experience), so I’ll just give to you straight:

When going to Italy, many Americans mistakenly assume that they will find cemeteries in which their ancestors are buried; they hope to locate their ancestors’ gravestones with genealogical information engraved. In the United States and most of North America, cemeteries contain graves and gravestones that sometimes date back hundreds of years and have genealogical information for the people buried there. Unfortunately the same is not true in Italy. In most large towns and cities, a burial plot can be rented and a gravestone placed for ten, twenty, or thirty years. After this period of time the remains are exhumed and, if the family desires, placed in an urn and deposited more permanently in the wall of the cemetery. Otherwise, the remains are placed in a communal burial spot within the cemetery. In any case, the gravestone is removed and the burial plot is used for a new grave. Therefore, in most cities it is difficult to find a gravestone older than thirty years. This practice is due to the scarcity of land in Italy and the need to dedicate existing land to the living rather than to the dead.

In smaller villages there may be less demand for space and the grave may remain longer than thirty years, but rarely will you find graves that precede World War I… The exceptions are the noble families, whose members were often buried in family vaults in the floor or basement of the church, their names engraved in the marble flooring. Some families had private burial plots on their property. It is rarely possible to find the gravestone of an ancestor, and cemeteries are seldom helpful genealogical sources…

So, there you go. That’s the answer to the Italian cemetery question.

The book goes on to say that the records that will tell me where my ancestor Antonio was buried are likely to be found in parish records. But I will probably never know exactly the spot of ground in which he was interred, because I doubt the record will be that detailed, and…clearly…he won’t still be there.

Meanwhile, on a plot in St. Mary’s section (northeastern corner) of Greenlawn Cemetery in Portsmouth, Ohio, Antonio’s son Quinto rests soundly next to his wife Pia, in a piece of ground he has occupied for over 62 years (more than double the longest usual lease of a cemetery plot in his homeland):

Pia and Quinto Pasquinelli, Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2012 (photo by the author)

Pia and Quinto Pasquinelli, Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio, 2012 (photo by the author)

I’m sure that’s not particularly one of the reasons he came to America to stay, but it’s one of the things he got, just the same…

Now, I actually told you that story to tell you a different story—an exciting tale of atti di morti!—but that one will have to wait until next time.

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5 responses to “The Italian Cemetery Question

  1. I found that so crazy when I was there! I can’t imagine how that happens, particularly with the endless rolling hills and land in the Pistoia area. But their cemeteries are quite impressive and beautiful.

  2. Wow, beautiful cemeteries!

  3. Pingback: Finding Antonio | Glancing Backwards

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