Grave Situation

Amid Rome’s often dizzying chaos, the “Cimitero Acattolico” or Cemetery for Non-Catholics in Testaccio is a particularly tranquil spot. At the top of the hill, near the grave of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the scents of pine needles and jasmine flowers intertwine to perfume the air which is otherwise thick with exhaust fumes from the traffic circle below. Down the slope, just beyond an ancient wall near the grave of poet John Keats, wild grasses dance in the shadow of the massive Pyramid of Cestius, itself a funery monument from 12 b.c. The menacing sounds of Rome’s human and vehicular chaos are muted here, replaced by the wraithy whisper of wind through the cypress trees playing harmony to the songbirds and cicadas. Exotic foliage and bursts of vibrant flowers adorn the 2,500 graves of famous foreigners like the son of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and that of American poet Constance Fenimore Woolson, who wrote, “This cemetery is the only joyous cemetery I know of. Here the flowers always bloom, the birds always sing.” But it was not always such a serene place. The cemetery began around 1748 when the Vatican reluctantly designated the land for the burial of those who could not be interred in Catholic churches or in otherwise consecrated soil. Until that time, the non-Catholics of all ranks and class were buried near Rome’s Muro Torto, alongside “impenitenti,”mainly criminals and prostitutes who were literally dumped into nameless graves there.

Open PDF