How Italy Honors Its Dead

Oct 26, 2020

With so many lives lost in the global coronavirus pandemic over the last year, il giorno dei morti (the day of the dead) on November 2 takes on even greater significance. In the Catholic church,  All Souls Day commemorates all who have died. When I’ve been in Italy for this day of remembrance,  I’ve been impressed and inspired by the ways in which Italians honor their departed ones.

Many travel to their home towns to place flowers, especially crysanthemums, and small lights on the graves of  their relatives. A friend explains that this is “non un giorno di lutto, bensì una giornata felice” (not a day of mourning, but instead a happy day) when families share special sweets, such as ossa di morto (literally the bones of the dead) and stinchetti dei morti  (little shins of the dead) as a way of both remembering the deceased and communicating affection without words. Yet words are what entice me most at Italian cemeteries, which often resemble marble-walled cities of souls.

On one visit to the centuries-old cemetery at San Miniato in Florence, I read touching tributes to lives that ended too soon. “Non ti dimenticheremo” (We will not forget you), reads a memorial from 1943, “perché fosti il migliore di noi, perché c’insegnasti ad essere buoni e coraggiosi” (because you were the best of us, because you taught us to be good and courageous).

Amid many monuments praising gallant young men who fought in Italy’s wars, I came upon the tombstone of a remarkable woman, Antonia Masanello (1833-1862). This courageous “Garibaldina” dressed as a man to battle by her husband’s side in the fight for Italian independence led by Giuseppe Garibaldi. The words on her tomb read:

“Era bella. Era piccina ma aveva cor di leone e di soldato.” (She was beautiful. She was tiny but she had the heart of a lion and of a soldier.)

Se non fosse che era donna le spalline avria avute e non la gonna e poserebbe sul funereo letto con la medaglia del valor sul petto.” (If she hadn’t been born a woman, she would be wearing epaulets instead of a skirt, and she would have been laid to rest with a medal of military valor on her chest.) 

Ma che fa la medaglia e tutto il resto? Pugno’ con Garibaldi. E basta questo.”  (But is a medal and all that really important, after all? She fought alongside Garibaldi. This is all that matters.)

Another touching  memorial captures the vitality of a handsome young aviator, Mario Mazzone, who died in 1944 during the Second World War, possibly while an Allied prisoner. I had assumed that Maria, his marble companion, was his wife. However, after I first recounted this story, readers informed me that Graziella Cirri, who had researched the history of the tomb, found that it was commissioned by Mario’s mother in 1947 and speculated that the two were brother and sister.

Whatever their relationship,  Mario, in his military dress uniform,  and Maria, with long hair and an elegant gown, radiate  joy as they dance on their grave. Long after their passing,  they remind us of a life-affirming truth: Love never dies.

Couple cemetery

Dianne Hales is the author of  LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. You can download my new book, A” Is for Amore, for free at

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La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua