Remembering the Dead in the Italian Language

Oct 30, 2017

Angel tombstone

Il giorno dei morti

The Day of the Dead 

Italy’s cimiteri (cemeteries) come alive on November 2 (All Souls’ Day), which la Chiesa cattolica (the Catholic church) dedicates alla commemorazione dei defunti (to the commemoration of the deceased). Many Italians travel to their home towns to place fiori, soprattutto crisantemi, e lumini (flowers, especially crysanthemums, and small lights) on the graves of i parenti scomparsi (departed 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 frutta, dolci, cioccolato e caramelle (fruit, sweets, chocolates and caramels) as a way of remembering the deceased and, she contends, of communicating with them without words.

Yet words are what entice me most at Italian cemeteries, which often resemble marble-walled cities of souls. On a 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 one for 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.)

The most 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 of war. I had assumed that Maria, his marble companion, was his wife or fiancee. 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, reminding us that love never dies.

Couple cemetery

Words and Expressions

Ossa di morto -– literally the bones of the dead, cookies baked for the Day of the Dead in certain regions of Italy

Stinchetti dei morti — cakes called the little shins of the dead, served in Umbria on November 2 to ease any sadness

Cimiteri monumentali — monumental cemeteries, famous for their funerary art

Sepolcro -– tomb

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

Click below for a dramatic reading by the great Vittorio Gassman: 





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