Tag Archives: cemeteries

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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Woodland Cemetery added to National Register of Historic Places

Woodland Cemetery is one of my favorite places in Dayton. I’ve always loved wandering around cemeteries (yes, I’m weird like that), and Woodland is just…amazing. But don’t just take my word for it:

Woodland’s awesomeness was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which, on Nov. 22, 2011, added Woodland’s 105-acre Victorian section to the National Register of Historic Places (see Dayton Daily News 12/14/2011 and 12/18/2011, also Woodland’s press release).

This is actually Woodland’s second entry on the National Register; the Romaneqsue style chapel (built in 1889) was added in 1978.

Woodland Cemetery opened in 1843—for more history of the cemetery, visit their web site or the Dayton Metro Library Local History Room—and since then has become the final resting place of many of Dayton’s most prominent citizens, including the Wright Brothers, Charles F. Kettering, Edward Deeds, John H. Patterson, and Benjamin Van Cleve.

However, according to the Dayton Daily News (12/18/2011):

Although remains of many prominent citizens are buried or rest in crypts at Woodland, [President and chief executive Dave] FitzSimmons said the Historic Register’s selection was based on the cemetery’s notable “curvilinear” design by landscape architect Adolph Strauch (1822-83), who took advantage of the vistas created by the rolling wooded terrain. He was a proponent of what came to be known as the Rural Garden Cemetery Movement.

The winding paths of Woodland are indeed a sight to behold. I have taken my camera to the cemetery a few times, usually looking for some particular grave, but I’m always amazed by the scenery in general. Without further adieu, here are some of my favorite scenes and “residents” of Woodland:

Panoramic view of Downtown Dayton from the Lookout Point

Panoramic view of Downtown Dayton from the Lookout Point

Van Cleve family

Van Cleve family

Benjamin Van Cleve held many important public positions, including clerk of courts, in the early days of Dayton. His son John W. Van Cleve was similarly important. (Check out the Van Cleve-Dover Collection at Dayton Metro Library.)

Charles G. Bickham grave

Charles G. Bickham grave

Charlie Bickham — son of Dayton Journal editor W. D. Bickham — served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War and was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. He wasn’t bad to look at either. (Check out the Bickham Collection at DML.)

A. W. Drury grave

A. W. Drury grave

I’m probably throwing you a curve ball with this one. A. W. Drury wrote one of my favorite local history reference books: History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio, 2 vols. (1909).

Samuel and Sarah Forrer

Samuel and Sarah Forrer

Samuel Forrer was the Resident Engineer for the Miami-Erie Canal. To give you an idea of how important that made him to the project, here’s some trivia: when the canal opened in Dayton in 1829, “the Forrer” was the second canal boat to arrive, second only to the “Gov. Brown” (named for Ohio governor Ethan A. Brown who was a major influence in getting Ohio’s canal projects started). I am currently in the process of organizing the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection (which you probably already know, if you’ve been reading my blog long!), which includes many of Samuel’s papers, as well as those of several of his descendants.

You were probably expecting me to show you the graves of some of more well-known “crowd pleasers” like the Wright Brothers, Dunbar, Johnny Morehouse, J. H. Patterson, Deeds, Kettering, Cooper, or even Zeigler. Oh, I have pics of most of those too (just click the links), but I said I wanted to highlight some of my “favorite” people. I suppose they become my favorites because I’ve “spent so much time with them” — or, with their writings, or their lives. I become very interested in the people whose “stuff” I am organizing. It’s hard not to; you’re basically reading their diary (sometimes literally).

And now, a couple more simple scenes:

Saint Mary's Catholic Church on Xenia Avenue

Saint Mary's Catholic Church on Xenia Avenue

Fall Foliage

Fall Foliage

And I have tons more…check out my Woodland Cemetery Flickr set to see the rest.

Cemetery musings

I try to write at least one entry per week in this blog, and by that I mean I try not to let more than 7 days pass between entries. This week I have failed. I blame the holiday weekend; had I been at work those 3 days, I probably would have “stumbled” onto something I felt like blogging about. I’m always finding, or learning, something interesting. Such is the life of an archivist.

So, on Tuesday, I was thinking, What should I write about this week? Then, I began reviewing photos from the holiday weekend…and realized I had plenty of geeky history/library/archives fodder I could share – with photos! This entry is just going to be about snippets, but if something strikes your fancy and you would like to know more, drop me a line and ask for an elaboration. [Now there’s a great Latin word…]

On Saturday, my husband Matt and I took a drive to Columbus. First, we visited the Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery. (I bet you didn’t know there was a confederate cemetery in Ohio, did you? Well, there is, and now you know!)

Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery

We hunted around a bit for a Kentucky ancestor of Matt’s who is supposedly buried there, along with his son, but couldn’t find either of them. Either they are not really there (making the old “story” wrong), or they were not on whatever list was used when these pretty (new) white headstones were ordered. According to the story, the father was accused of being a “rebel sympathizer” (who knows if he was or not) and was hauled off to the prison camp; the son was a confederate soldier. It was still a nice visit, even if we didn’t find them. It was nice to see the stones all decorated with American flags for Memorial Day. Regardless of which side of the Mason-Dixon line you hail from, it’s good to remember we were (and are) all “Americans”.

I visited another cemetery on Sunday, but this one was a little closer to home. I was on my way somewhere when I passed the Polk Grove Cemetery at the corner of U.S. 40 (National Road) and Frederick Pike in Vandalia. I have passed it before but never stopped to check it out. So, on Sunday, I did. I took several pictures, including some that I “stitched” together using photo editing software, to make a panorama:

Polk Grove Cemetery Vandalia Ohio PANORAMA

The cemetery was established in 1825, according to the sign, so there were plenty of neat old stones in there.

You know, I had more “snippets” I was going to share, but since these two are both about cemeteries, I think I will stick with that subject.

It might seem strange that “I brake for cemeteries.” I always forget that’s not a particularly normal thing to do, but I’ve been doing it for so long, it seems normal to me. I’m trying to think back to how I got this way. It must be from genealogy.

My grandmother got me started on genealogy when I was 13 or 14 years old. Gravestone inscriptions are one of the many sources for genealogical “clues”. I went to many cemeteries, both looking for info, and also just to “see” my ancestors. There are probably few cemeteries in Scioto County, Ohio, that I haven’t visited at least once. Sometimes, if I passed a cemetery I had not been to before, I would stop just to see if there were any names I recognized.

I suppose those two reasons could explain the trips to two cemeteries this weekend: hunting for a relative (in Camp Chase cemetery) and curiosity of whether there were any names I recognized (in Polk Grove cemetery). Sure, I didn’t expect to find any relatives in the Vandalia cemetery, since none of my ancestors are from there. But hello! I work in a local history reference in an area that includes Vandalia – I’ve seen lots of those names before.

And if you didn’t already find me morbid enough — hmm, this is not made better by the fact that my previous entry is all about keeping dead people’s hair, is it? — I have one other reason that I like stopping by cemeteries: it’s comforting. That may no make much sense. Most of the time when people are in a cemetery, “comfort” is probably about the last thing they are feeling: they are probably burying a relative or friend or visiting that person’s grave because they miss them or want to pay respect to them. There’s not much “comfort” that comes with those things.

But I don’t really think of a cemetery as a big field planted with dead people. And okay, most of my experiences with cemeteries has been tinged with “adventure” or “treasure-hunting” or “discovery” rather than grief or loss. I’ve gone into cemeteries so many times, already knowing why, when, and how some of those people “got there” and some of the things they endured in the years (whether many or few) leading up to that final resting point:  cancer, tuberculosis, operations gone wrong, accidents, death of a child, abandonment, less-than-stellar parents, financial hardships, crappy occupations (or downright unemployment), long emigration voyages on rough waters, discrimination, frontier life, the Great Depression, war, floods, losing everything… I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

I can just sit down in the grass and stare out at those stones and “know” what hardships these people must have faced. Sometimes, I can “match” names and their relevant hardships together (like family members); but most times, 99% of the people I don’t even know, let alone what all they went through…but you could imagine. And it makes me feel like, no matter what is going on in my life, there’s probably somebody “out there” – in that field – who went through it before me (and probably suffered much, much worse). It gives me a weird sense of comfort. Plus, cemeteries are usually such calm, quiet places. It’s a good place to just sit and reflect. I like that about them, too.

Hmm, I was trying to dial down the “morbid” by explaining why I like to hang out in cemeteries, but I’m not sure I really accomplished my goal by saying more. Maybe you’d have to be a genealogist/family history buff to understand. Is anybody with me?