I spent my thirtieth birthday in a cemetery. Well, not the whole day. In fact, not even as much of the day as I would have liked. But when I read Rick Steves’s description of Milan’s Monumental Cemetery (Il Cimitero Monumentale) as the “most artistic and dreamy” in Europe, I sat up pretty straight. That’s quite a statement, coming from Rick.
And I have a thing for burial places. I’ve only realized this as I’ve traveled. Though each has its own feel, a graveyard always holds the weight of however many individual lives it represents—and with each life, its own story. I get sucked into looking at some marker identifying a person I have no connection to outside of this moment, and wondering what their life was like: Was she happy? Did he marry for love? What kind of work did he do?
While it’s fascinating and humbling to think about all the lives that have come and gone, I also find it weirdly invigorating. There’s something about standing in a cemetery that says: You’ve got your chance. What are you going to do with it?
Admittedly, not everyone feels this way, and perhaps my feelings are slanted by my lack of personal experiences with death. Anyway, the “it’s my birthday” card helped me convince Tim to spend our one afternoon in Milan trying to find this rather large but not central graveyard. We rode a tram outside the city center and got off as directed. We found the walls of the cemetery pretty quickly, but no entrance and a variety of loiterers we were unsure we wanted to meet. Just as I was beginning to think the cemetery was closed to the public, or the guidebook had failed us and we would have to admit defeat—I got a glimpse inside. And then I was on a mission to find the gate. [If this happens to you, continue around from the bus stop through the parking lot toward your right with the cemetery walls in front of you. Look for the flower sellers. There IS a gate, and entry is free.]
What I had seen through the fencing were hallways of dusty squares, with yellowed photos and faded flowers. The entry to the cemetery took us through a vast building of hallways like this. In some places a ladder stood, as if someone had just been cleaning. I saw maybe three other people (none of them cleaning). Intermixed were monuments and statues, some adorned with the most vivid mosaics I had ever seen. This one, personal favorite, reads “flame of flames, light of lights.”
If you’ve read C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, there’s a scene that takes place in a city of tombs. I don’t think I’ve ever properly pictured that scene until I wandered through this park. Monuments of widely varying shape, size, style, and material all crowd together; every turn I chose randomly revealed some sight I hadn’t seen. The cemetery is also rightly known as a museum or sculpture garden. I was stunned by how evocative some of the works were.
We spent an hour or so walking around and saw nowhere near all of the park. Unfortunately, it was closing time and I was being eaten alive by Italian mosquitoes (a feast that persisted for another full two weeks). Plus, it was—after all—my birthday, and there was burrata (the best mozzarella ever) to be eaten, and life to be lived.