I pause at the sign that is posted by the entrance. I try to imagine the kind of person that would interrupt a funeral-in-progress. This, along with eating, drinking, taking photographs and sitting on the grass, is prohibited on Isola di San Michele: Venice’s island cemetery.
It’s a pity about the photos because this cemetery is unlike any I’ve ever encountered. First, there is the colour. No grey-green lichen covered granite for the Venetians. Instead, the field is a riot of crimson, cerise, fuchsia and periwinkle. On closer inspection the blooms, which adorn every single grave, are silk. The brightness of their hue corresponds to the age of the grave.
At the intersection of each path there is a stand of twenty-or-so green plastic watering cans. They are faded and brittle and incongruous in a garden of false flowers. Is the illusion for the tourists, the mourners or the dead? I can imagine the funeral parties that have come and gone – each populated with someone who sees the cans and promises themselves that they will be back to tend the graves and replace the fresh flowers.
The angels with their eroded noses and spread-out wings that I’ve come to expect from grave-yards are absent. In their place are enamel-coated, coloured photos of the deceased. The protective layer is effective: its the fashion rather than the fading which gives the best indication of when the person passed through.
I wander through a classically-columned semi-circular cloister and emerge in a still-stranger area. Ahead of me sprawls a suburbia of family mausoleums. They run the architectural gamut from neo-classical temples to modern, brutalist-blocks of polished granite. My favourites are the ones that look like they were knocked-up by a local builder. They come complete with faux-brick cladding in a colour that’s one shade too light to blend in with the colours of the city.
I ignore the benches that are green with moss and reek of the vase-smell of rot. I dart through a gap in a row to towering Cyprus trees. I wave away clouds of midges and emerge in a hard-edged block of memorial walls. The Catholic church lifted its ban on cremation in 1963 but their disdain for the procedure is reflected in the design. Here, its all right angles and pitched, corrugated asbestos roofs. It reminds me of a sixties-era commercial-park parking lot. I expect to see battered Ford Cortina’s instead of the rusting steel ladders with their tiny wheels that allow visitors to reach the highest of the memorial plaques. The unrelenting bleakness of the area can’t be saved by the tiny, flame shaped light fittings attached to the plaques. Most dangle broken wires from beneath.
I only have time to take a fleeting glance at the emerald lawns of the military section before racing the jump back onto the the already-departing vaparetto. The boat will take me back to the teeming mass of tourist-infested pathways that make up the main city of Venice.
The ferry doesn’t run after sunset. It’s a shame. I’d like to see the flickering of the pretend candles…the ones that still work anyway.