Isola di San Michele: Venice’s Island of the Dead
Venice is a glorious city, but like any city, the noise, crowds and mayhem can be overwhelming.
Thankfully, a complete change of scenery is only a boat ride away.
You can make an easy escape by taking a boat to Venice’s outer islands. Taking a boat to Murano and Burano is a popular choice, but it’s wise to consider visiting Isola di San Michele, with its towering cypress trees and elegant chapels floating just across from the Fondamente Nuove.
Isola di San Michele is the most peaceful of Venetian islands, not surprising since the only inhabitants are deceased. The Venetian government decreed the island a cemetery in 1837 after determining the usual practice of burying the dead beneath paving stones and church floors was “unsanitary and illegal.” Seems reasonable considering the Aqua Alta, or yearly floods that pour into the streets of Venice a few times a year.
San Michele in Isola and Capella Emiliana (left dome)
My husband and I planned to visit neighboring islands during our trip to Venice, Murano for glass, Burano for the beautiful colors and lace, but I had to add San Michele to the itinerary as I can never bypass an old cemetery. I told The Mister about the island with entirely too much enthusiasm, and he willingly accepted his fate, bless him.
We piled on a vaporetto early in the morning for the 10-minute ride across the lagoon and disembarked along with a handful of tourists and somber-faced locals holding flowers and small bags of gardening tools.
As the boat chugged away, we followed the others under the red brick archway into a sun-drenched courtyard. Everyone disappeared down various gravel walkways until there was no one left in the courtyard but us. We picked up a small paper map from the office and followed a cypress-lined path to an area that seemed more garden than graveyard.
It was lovely in a way…almost every gravestone had a photo of the deceased and evidence of a recent visit… fresh flowers, handwritten notes and little mementos. The headstone carvings, photos, and memorials helped us piece together visions of past lives in Venice.
The cemetery is divided into sections, Eastern Orthodox (holding the graves of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev), Protestant, Catholic and areas that hold Commonwealth War Dead, nuns and priests, gondoliers and gondolier makers. One section seemed haunted by neglect…tipped headstones and inscriptions worn smooth over time, strikingly different to the well-kept, oft-visited graves nearby. There wasn’t anyone around to ask why the section looked so overgrown and forlorn. Not that I could ask in Italian anyway…
The more modern sections of the cemetery have long, towering rows of tombs with rolling ladders parked at each end. We watched family members climb ladders, replace fresh flowers, pass a kiss to the photo and cross themselves before climbing back down. We never lingered during these private moments.
Isola di San Michele is still an active cemetery, although a temporary resting place for most Venetians. Burials and tombstones remain for 10 – 12 years before they are dug up and re-deposited elsewhere (with the exception of a wealthy/famous few). There are occasional signs throughout the cemetery listing names and reminding families that it is time to “rise up and go elsewhere” and I wonder where that elsewhere might be.
Sounds of the modern world trickle over the walls and bring us back to the world of the living…workmen and cranes busily clank, dig and build nearby. Mowers hum off in the distance.
We hurry back to catch the next boat, realizing the hours passed quickly in San Michele. It is a beautiful place and offers and intimate look back through generations of lives and loves in Venice.
Things to Know About Visiting Isola di San Michele
Isola di San Michele isn’t a tourist attraction. Visitors are expected to act with “quiet respect” and to dress appropriately (no shorts, tank tops, etc.). This is a sacred place. If you wouldn’t wear it to Mass with Nana, don’t wear it.
Vaporetto routes 4.1 and 4.2 stop here before continuing on to Murano and Burano. The ride from Fondamenta Nuove to Isola San Michele (Cimitero stop) is 10 minutes. If you start your day on the islands early enough, you can visit San Michele, Murano and Burano.
Ezra Pound and other notables are buried here. Check listings and maps to help you hunt them down.
There are basic facilities on the island (toilets), but little else.
1 November is All Saints Day an important thing to remember if you plan on visiting Venice and/or San Michele. Government offices and some businesses are closed to allow Venetians attend Mass and honor the dead. The flower shops along Fondamenta Nuove do a brisk business as mourners pile onto the vaporetto to San Michele with spectacular bouquets of fresh flowers. 2 November is All Souls Day. I don’t really know what that entails other than what someone told me. Supposedly on this day, the souls in San Michele gather together and float over the lagoon to return “home” and take a seat by the kitchen fire for the day/night. I’d love more details of this legend if anyone knows more.
Am I the only one who loves visiting cemeteries when traveling? Do you have a favorite? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
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