Armchair Travel – Venice

San Michele – The Isle of the Dead

When I was working on the Stravinsky post last week I knew that I had at least one photo of his grave site in Venice from a trip back in 1999. The problem was finding it – and a real problem it was. It was stored somewhere on a back-up drive that could only be accessed from my old MAC (2009). In my search I ended up doing something that resulted in having to do a system restore from a backup. (Always have a back up!!!!!!) But find that photo I did as well as some wonderful photos from an incredible three day cruise of the lagoon of Venice in a restored fishing boat. But more about that another time.

Before embarking on the cruise we spent several days strolling through Venice and renewing our love affair with La Serenissima. And that included a visit to Isola di San Michele, the cemetery Island. (Note that the photos were taken with one of the first digital cameras I owned and resolution was nowhere near what is is today. Also I was trying to use some of the more artsy effects that were available for a few of the photos.)

A view across the Lagoon to Isola di San Michele – the cemetery island of Venice.
photo: Wikipedia – Source: Current restricted for “sock puppetry”.

Fortunately back in the late 1990s Venice, in general, wasn’t the madhouse that it was to become and very few tourists made the five minute journey on Vaporetto 41/42 from Fondamente Nuove to Cimitero. Most of the passengers disembarking where carrying flowers to honour family or friends buried on the Island. As I have remarked in the past I am an inveterate “tombstone tourist” but always consider that respect must be paid to the deceased and privacy given to their loved ones.

Isola di San Michele is certainly amongst the most peaceful and beautiful cemeteries I have wandered through. Created at the command of Napoleon in 1804, it was designed by Gian Antonio Selva and opened in 1813. Strangely though there has been a Jewish cemetery at San Nicolò on the Lido since 1386 AD until Napoleon’s decree four centuries later there had been no common Christian place of burial. Prior to the inauguration of San Michele burials had been in church floors for the wealthy or under paving stones for the merchant class – not the most sanitary of practices during Acqua alta. What happened to the poor or plague victims doesn’t even bear thinking about.

“The church at the corner of the island is beautifully cool, austere and pallid, and is tended by soft-footed Franciscans … The cemetery itself is wide and calm, a series of huge gardens, studded with cypress trees and awful monuments.

“Not long ago it consisted of two separate islands, San Michele and San Cristoforo, but now they have been artificially joined, and the whole area is cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs–some lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and wrought-iron gates, some stacked in high modern terraces, like filing systems.”

The World of Venice – Jan Morris


As Jan Morris, wryly but almost affectionately, says some of the monuments are in glorious bad taste and indeed others have almost the air of filing cabinets. One of the most touching sections is the Children’s Cemetery – row after row of small monuments, often topped with cherubs, and niches in columbaria and vaults.


There are two Accatalico or Non-catholic sections: the Reparto Greci (Greek Orthodox) and the Reparto Evangelico (Protestant). Side by side these two burial grounds are separated from the rest of the cemetery by enclosing walls.

As I mentioned earlier in the week Igor and Vera Stravinsky are buried in the Greek Cemetery. A few feet away is the tomb of Sergei Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario.


The Protestant Cemetery has an air of neglect about it – overgrown shrubs, uncut grass, and toppled grave markers. It could be thought of as being either Gothic romantic or just plain rundown.

When we visited many of the graves were recent and the dead that occupied them in 1999 would no longer be there today. Though certain families have vaults and plots the Isola is only 62,000 m2 (670,000 sq ft) and space is at a premium. Remains are exhumed after 12 years and either cremated and moved to a columbarium or the bones are taken to an ossuary.


Towards the end of the 20th century the need for additional space was recognized and in 1998 a competition was held to design two sections adjacent to the existing Isola. Given the vagaries and machinations of local politics work was not begun until 2004 and finally completed in 2017. Pictures suggest that compared to the old cemetery there is a sterility to the design that is at odds with the picture that Jan Morris paints. Once the world is once more open to travel I have every intention of return after all they gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

The word for April 13th is:
Ossuary /ˈäSHəˌwerē/: [noun]
1. A container, room or building in which the bones of dead people are placed.
Mid 17th century: from late Latin ossuarium, formed irregularly from Latin os, oss- ‘bone’.
Though we in North America may find this a strange practice it has been common in Europe since – as witness the Latin ossuarium – early times.

The Stones on Yankee Hill – III

So finally I get around to actually taking you into the Yankee Hill Cemetery. It’s only been three years since I took the pictures! It was a sunny warm September day and the dappled light through the trees gave – me at least – the feeling of a Georgian novel. There was a touch of Byronic romanticism that you could picture on a threatening day suddenly turning Gothically sinister and on a moonless night downright frightening.

Given the machinations of Captain MacKay it was necessary to find a new burial site for the good folk of Yankee Hill and the surrounding area. The land that John Cameron gave in 1810 for the log chapel was large enough to accommodate a graveyard. The small chapel (barely six metres square) was to serve the largely Presbyterian congregation of an extended area from Cavendish across the bay* to Park Corner. It can be assumed the original graveyard was of a considerable size though it’s exact boundaries are unknown. It was however situation on a pleasant hill with an aspect to the dunes beyond.

There appears to be no existing records of the early burials but there are 23 known memorials indicating the resting places of 27 souls from the area. The earliest marker remembers the death of Robert William Cundall in 1828 and the latest gravestone dates from 1904 with the passing of James W. Cousins.

The first stones on the path in are for Ann and Andrew McPherson and at the foot of their graves is a small marker that commemorates AMcP. Unfortunately nothing else is decipherable on the remnants of the stone – perhaps it is one of their children?

Behind the McPherson’s is a stone marking the resting place of George McLeod who was 4 years old when his family emigrated from Sutherlandshire in Scotland to PEI. Many of the other McLeod’s in the area came from the same area so he is possibly related to one or two of the McLeods buried in the cemetery.

A rather unusual table memorial separates his stone from what would appear to be a family plot for the McLeod clan. Unfortunately exposure to the elements has rendered the inscription illegible.

There is at least two grave widths between the headstone for the elder Hugh McLeod (1845) and that of Nancy (1869) and her husband Hugh (1866) which would suggest there are other family members whose headstones have gone missing.

The final resting place of John and Mary Cousins and several of their children and grand children.

A row of six gravestones mark the resting place of several branches of the Cousins family who held land in the French River area. John Cousins (1840) came to PEI in 1785 as an Empire Loyalist after the American Revolution. His family had been Huguenots from Normandy and the original spelling of the name was Couzens. After settling in Park Corner he married Mary Townsend (1850) in 1786. In 1775 when she was seven she had come with her family on Robert Clark’s ill-fated venture to found a New London. Cousins was one of the largest landowners in the region with over seven hundred acres.

The rather odd phrase “relic of” is used to indicate that Mary had been the surviving spouse of John. It also appears on the grave stone of Catherine McKay. It is a unisex term simply meaning “survivor of” and could be used for a widow or widower.

James, the son of William and Mary, is the last recorded burial in the cemetery in October 1904. He had been postmaster at Park Corner for many years. From the inscription on his stone it would appear that he had suffered for a long time from a unnamed aliment.

Several of the stones bear the maiden names of the wives – something that I would have thought unusual for the time. However a bit of research revealed that in Scotland it was a common practice until recently for a married women to be known formally, if not necessarily in everyday life, by their original surnames after marriage. It was a form of recognizing your birth clan. The custom carried over to memorials and tombstones.

Robert William Cundall Esq (1828)
& his son Thomas (1831)

Robert William Cundall settled in Park Corner and married Penelope Bassett the daughter of a landowner in the area. On her father’s death she inherited a share of Lot 20. Cundall died in 1828 at the age of 49 – his marker is the oldest of the existing stones. His oldest son Thomas died three years later in a drowning accident at the age of 13. According to the note in the graveyard the second son William took over the running of the family properties when his father died??? He would have been at the most eight or nine at the time so you do have to question that statement????

Though the log chapel was abandoned in 1836-37 burials were to continue for another 67 years. As time passed the chapel rotted away – though until recently there were locals who recall playing “fort” on the stone foundation and amongst the few remaining wooden crosses and toppling tombstones. The area became overgrown and as happens nature took back the land. However in 1971 a volunteer group cleared both Yankee Hill and Sims Cemeteries and in 1973, PEI Centennial year, they were declared memorials and Provincial historical sites.

Hopefully the damaged caused by Dorian will be cleared away and it will be possible to once again cross the wooden bridge and experience a glimpse of the stories of the lives, loves, achievements and families of that corner of our Island.

Most of the historical information concerning individuals was provided by the object labels at the Cemetery.

The word for August 25th is:
Relic /ˈrelik/: [noun]
1.1 An object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
1.2 A part of a deceased holy person’s body or belongings kept as an object of reverence.
1.3 An object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.
1.4 (archaic) The surviving partner of a marriage i.e. widow or widower.

The Stones on Yankee Hill – I

I had started a post on the Cemetery at Yankee Hill back in September 2017 after our first visit there with our friends Pierre and Douglas. A day trip to the area in June and our recent staycation close to the site had me revisiting the photos and text with an eye to finally getting around to posting it. Turns out that it will be a two three parter.

Strangely the damage to Prince Edward Island caused by Hurricane Dorion in September of last year went largely unreported except in the local media. The storm hit the North Shore with particular force and it is estimated that in the Cavendish area 80 percent of the trees suffered damage from the high winds and the storm surge eroded 2-3 metres (6-7 feet) of the coast line. We had seen some evidence of it when going through the National Park but got a close up look as we tried to make our way to Yankee Hill Cemetery in June.

Entire stands of trees had been uprooted – particularly birch trees – older or diseased trees had been snapped like twigs and the pathway to the Cemetery was completely blocked. The area was dotted with what a local called “widow makers” – half felled trees precariously supported by other trees bending under their weight. It was difficult to tell if any of the 24 headstones had been damaged or what the current state of the cemetery was. Any attempt to find out would have been both arduous and dangerous.

There had been no sign of any attempts to clear the area and the damage suggested that it would be a big job. From Spring to Fall the Cemetery is cared for under the Island Young Offenders programme administered by a volunteer Board in Summerside. However this was a dangerous job which would need to be done by professionals. Given the isolation of the site and what appeared to be restrictive access we wondered if anything could or would be done.

Two weeks ago we had a conversation with the gentlemen who owns the cemetery as an extension of his property – from what I could understand he holds it in trust as a Provincial Historical Site (though I could stand corrected on the exact legalities of all that). He is an archaeologist and was happy to have trusteeship of the site. The good folks at Provincial Tourism had surveyed the site and work was to start on clearing the damage at the end of July. Apparently there is an access route into the site. He also confirmed that, miraculously, none of the existing stones had been damaged.

In the second part (scheduled for Tuesday) I’ll revisit the photos we took in 2017 and share a brief history of one of the more unusual cemeteries I’ve visited over the years.

The word for August 7th is:
Cemetery /ˈsɛmɪtri/: [noun]
A large burial ground, especially one not in a churchyard.
Late Middle English: via late Latin from Greek koimētērion ‘dormitory’ or ‘sleeping place’, from koiman ‘put to sleep’.
I had not realized that a cemetery was not the burial ground attached to a church – that, logically when I stop and think about it, is a graveyard. As burial in the church yard became unsustainable new burial places, independent of the church, appeared—and these were called cemeteries.

A Quiet Place

In which I share two not-so-guilty pleasures.

Any one who has read this blog over the past twelve years knows that I have a fondness for visiting cemeteries. Not through any sense of the macabre or romantic fatalism but because they are often lovely spots of quiet in the middle of madness. They may be a hidden away in a overgrown woods (I’ve been sitting on those photos of the Yankee Hill Cemetery for too long now) or beside a small country church. Where ever they are they reflect the stories of a place, a time, and the lives, and deaths, of people.

I also love to travel both in reality and as an armchair passenger. And one of my favourite guides should it be the latter mode is my dear David over at I’ll Think of Something Later. It seems that David is forever on the go – either at home in London or in wonderful exotic places in Europe. Where ever his wandering takes him he manages to take me along with his wonderful photo essays. This past week I was able to travel with David as he took a walk through the Brompton Cemetery near his home in “West Ken”.

I thought I’d like to share that walk with my readers and a left click on the detail from Charles Booth’s 1889 Poverty map of London will allow you to join us.

We were fortunate that on our last trip to London back in 2016 – has it really been that long? – to be able to have brunch with David and J, his diplomate husband. Then we spent the afternoon wandering through Chelsea with David with our final destination the beautiful Chelsea Physic Garden – a true “hidden gem” in the heart of the city. I wrote about our visit and posted a slideshow of the pleasures of the Garden in the late fall. I made a vow then to return to see it at other times of the year and I really should fulfill it. And besides that would give me the chance to wander with David in real time.

On this day in 1907: The Mud March is the first large procession organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Recorded in Stone

In which three tombstones tell their story.

I have always freely admitted to being a taphophile – I have a fondness for visiting cemeteries and looking at graves. Often they are a revealing snapshot of a time in the history of a place and its people. The stories of peoples’ lives, their loves, their achievements and their family are traced in many ways:  carved on stone, in elaborate iron work,  simple wooden crosses, ornate marble vaults or unadorned plaques.  What ever the form a story is told.  It may be a simple one: they were born, they had a name, they died; or it maybe a fulsome description of their life and achievements. Laurent and I still chuckle over an overblown epitaph of a British consul at San Michele in Venice.

On our recent visit to Halifax The Old Burying Ground proved my point and revealed a wealth of history of the city and its people during the near to a century (1749-1844) the Ground served as the first cemetery for the Colony.  As you enter the Triumphal Arch commemorating the British victories in the Crimea and two Haligonians, Major Welsford and Captain Parker, who died in the Siege of Sevastopol, is impressive but was built in 1860, sixteen years after the cemetery was closed and speaks to European history.  It is the rows of stone markers – many of them overgrown with moss and lichen, or battered and worn by time and the elements – that tell the story of the people of Halifax.

There are some 1200 headstones in the Old Burying Ground but I found three in particular intriguing.

Many gravestones record names, dates and include a memorial epitaph requesting peace, prayers or suggesting penance for the departed in the afterlife. However some bear admonitions to the living to give pause for thought.  One such is on the stone “Sacred to the Memory of Zerviah Barratt”.  Zerviah, a variation on the name of King David’s sister Zeruiah, departed life on October 11, 1815 at the age of 72 and left behind these words of warning:

Barratt-tombstone
Your Parents and your friends are gone
My Children know this Doom your own
Feeble as ours your Mortal Frame
The same your way your House the same
From vital air from chearful light
To the cold Graves perpetual night
From scenes of duty means of grace
You must to God’s tribunal pass

Perhaps one of the saddest gravestones in the Old Burying Ground records just names, dates and ages.  It is the resting place of the four Wright children whose combined ages were 3 years and 11 months.  It speaks to the harshness of life in the military post of Halifax in the 1790s- early 1800s.  At the foot of the memorial is a second smaller stone simply incised with the children’s initials.

Wright-Children

The large stone records their passing and perhaps a little of their parents grief. That strange short hand that often appears on monumental masonry of the time omits their father’s full name (In?) but we know that Barbara, a military wife, buried Mary, Charles, Maria and Isabella between 1795 and 1803.

Wright-Children-2
In Memory of 4 Children of In.& Barbara
Wright of the R. Artil. Mary
Depard her life the 3rd Aug.
1795 Aged 1 Year & 4 Months.
Charles Depard his life Sep
3 1798 Aged 2 Months. Maria
Depard her life 11 Nov. 1800
Aged 1 year & 3 Months. Isabella
Depardher life 14 March 1803
Aged 1 years & 2 Months.
Farewell dear Babes
While Nature prompts A tear
Parents love shall pay the tribute here

An intriguing epitaph on Captain John Westmacott’s tombstone brings to light a strange story of a bag of stolen salted mackerel, murder, a large reward, a snitching fence, a botched execution, and perhaps an innocent man hanged. The legend tells us that Westmacott:

Died May 4, 1816 in the 29th year of his Age
His death was occasioned by
Wounds he received from two
Villains in possession of Stolen Goods
Whom he attempted to Secure
While he was doing Military
Duty in Halifax early in the
Morning of 17th April 1816.

Westmacott’s story is one of those vignettes that we can only wish had been in our history books at school.  The full story is told in Dianna Marshall’s True Stories from Nova Scotia’s Past and is more than worth the read.

While downloading the photos of the Old Burying Ground I found – as one often does – that an oversensitive iPhone had taken an unintended photograph.  But in this case perhaps not an inappropriate one.

Gravedigger

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