Death in Italy

Charles 11 Comments


 Posted by Richard Rawlinson


The Cremation Society of Great Britain this month publishes its international cremation statistics for 2010. See here.

The country with the highest percentage of cremations is Japan at 99.9%, and the country with the lowest percentage is Ghana at 3%. But, for me, the most interesting comparison, is between the UK and Italy.

The UK, which has 260 crematoria nationwide, had 413,780 cremations, which is 73% of the total 565,624 deaths. Italy, which had a similar number of deaths to the UK, had 488,756 fewer cremations. Italy’s 76,868 cremations amount to 14% of the total 585,448 deaths.

I confess to being a bit of an Italophile but it strikes me Italians celebrate life with verve but treat death with a dignity that’s also practical and realistic – an approach that’s perhaps lacking in some Protestant countries where death is more taboo.

Italian funerals and wakes remain sombre occasions where most people wear black. When someone dies in a village, he or she is still kept in an open coffin at home and friends and neighbours visit to pay their respects. The family often decorate the door of the house and put up notices to tell people about the death and the funeral. They have a full mass at the funeral service and neighbours and friends follow the pallbearers to the cemetery in a procession while people watch respectfully.

The cemetries are well kept, too, and the graves seem to be cared for with love, often displaying framed photos of the deceased and newly-placed flowers.

The cemeteries outside the Mediterranean towns are among the best. They often have wonderful views, with coffins placed in niches of high walls, each with their own light and vase.

Long may these traditions last. The crass festival of Halloween is sadly slowly taking the place of the Day of the Dead when, on 2 November, Italians visit the graves of their relatives and friends with chrysanthemums and candles; churches hold services for the dead, and children are given toys and presents by the ‘muorti’.

When the newly married Grace Kelly put a vase of chrysanthemums on a guest’s bedside table, her Prince Ranier of Monaco berated her. ‘Don’t you know these flowers symbolise death in Europe?’ he said.


Find the Cremation Society of Great Britain here


  1. Charles

    Call me egotistical but I’m surprised the latest crem stats aren’t worthy of comment. I’m interested in what you guys have to say.

    Aside from the Italy/UK comparison, it’s perhaps interesting that the US has 40% of crems out of its 2m annual deaths, which amounts to just a few more than the UK total.

    Any comments about that?

    Another footnote: On 26 March, 1885, Jeannette Pickersgill, a writer, became the first person in the UK to be legally cremated at the newly opened Woking Crematorium in Surrey. By the end of the year, only three cremations had taken place out of almost 600,000 deaths nationwide, and, in the following year, just 10 bodies were cremated.

    By 1901, with six crematoria established in locations including Manchester, London’s Golders Green and Darlington, there were only 427 cremations out of 551,585 deaths. That’s less than one-tenth of a percent compared to today’s figure of over 70%.

  2. Charles

    Never let it be said we neglected your stats Richard!
    Presumably the growth in cremation aligns with changes in beliefs and, less profoundly, attitudes? And also, do you have an assumption that cremation is somehow less dignified (your Italian comparison) and so Italians have many fewer cremations because they manage to be both dignified and practical? And also, Catholics took much longer to accept cremation, did they not? And finally: the comparison with Italy is interesting, because the prob with us is surely how we do cremations.

    There seem in general to be slightly fewer comments from the Regulars than of yore?

  3. Charles

    Hi Tim. Actually, despite Catholicism and love of Italia, I have no strong views on cremation, except I’d never, ever choose it.

    As for your final comment/question, yes, folk are a bit quiet lately. Any ideas for a heated debate?

  4. Charles

    Tim, please expand on the ‘prob with us is surely how we do cremations’. Do you think cremation is less dignified than burial, or is it how the ceremony is performed that counts?

    How does faithlessness affect how things are done, or attitudes to death?

    This relates also to Charles’s more recent blog (I think it’s by Charles) ‘What price value?’ I suspect any trend for budget funerals is not just due to economics but also to apathy caused by lack of belief in the after life – a funeral becomes an inconvenience to overcome. It doesn’t say much about a society if we don’t respect our dead.

    PS A caveat nodding to threads on the aforesaid ‘What price value?’ blog, I know a funeral should not be judged on how much cash is spent on it though. I’m sure some of the more keenly priced undertakers contribute to moving send-offs with or without the trappings. At the end of the day, it’s about attitudes to death, not size of flower displays.

    Are we losing it in a way the Italians are not?

  5. Charles

    Richard, I think crem stats can be accounted for only by considering a welter of factors. I’m inclined to encourage you to read Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire, which examines the phenomenon in ways which illuminate (pun intended) British practice.

    Some cultural and utilitarian factors: 1 Protestants do not believe in intercession, which greatly diminishes the role of mourners at a funeral. Second, this is but a wee island which does not, as sensible countries on the continent do, re-use graves. Cremation is a great space saver.

    The geographical distribution of cremation in both Europe and the UK follows, I believe, the same curious course. It is strongest in the NW, then diminishes as it goes SE. Or should that be NE and SW?

    Anyway, it’s a big topic, far too big for my brain. I ought to invite someone from the Cremation Soc to enlighten (pun intended) us.

    As for Italians — all I can say is that they just aren’t British.

  6. Charles

    H’m, well that’s a good question, Richard. Personally, I feel a burial has a fundamental connection with our earth (but of course Hindus feel cremation has ditto with fire, so that’s just a personal feeling.) Charles puts the practical argument about space.

    I think it does depend entirely on how it’s done. The difficulty with cremations is the crem and the time slot. I really feel that a funeral ceremony elsewhere, with the coffin, followed by a cremation can be just as effective as a burial, and of course burial ceremonies tend to get cut short in foul weather (as happens a fair bit in these parts!) At least in the the village hall, or even in the crem (more double slots please!) you can have a coherent ceremony whatever the weather.

    I don’t even think it’s to do with faith/lessness. A perfunctory ceremony is a perfunctory ceremony, whether led by a priest or a celebrant. Good funerals create meaning, they are rites of passage, they should help with a profound transformation.

    It is because we want to add to the sound of the human singing voice that we have started our funeral choir, “Threnody.” (Sorry about there plug, but it does relate to your question.) Threnody sings hymns for people who want them, but we also have what we think are moving and effective songs to sing, for example, about how friendship helps us through loss; songs and chants about leaving the dead person in peace; songs and chants linking human existence to the natural world – so we want to add meanings to funerals for people whatever their beliefs.

    Maybe we are losing it, but maybe also we can find it, and are finding it. The answers will be pluralist, whether religious or not, but they will all have in common a commitment to the event, success in creating meanings for what has happened and is to happen, and a profound if difficult experience for the bereaved people.

  7. Charles

    Hi Charles, thanks for the Purified by Fire tip and interesting that Protestant rejection of intercession is likely to be a contributing factor to crem stats in northern Europe alongside, of course, space shortages.

    Hi Tim, I take your point about indoor funerals being practical in our climate, and, of course, that both secular and religious funerals can be profound rites of passage when done with commitment.

    The single slot in the crem, without a ceremony before the committal, seems a significant obstacle. But filling even this with initiatives such as your choir seems like a leap forward, along with overall commitment and yearning for meaning.

    Is there something of a Catch 22: people only know they want meaning when they’re given it, and to be given it they need to ask for it, or at least see it on action?

  8. Charles

    Catch22 it is Richard – do we give them “what they want” or push things along a little, with maximum sensitivity, and help them find what they really need – or is that just arrogance? Well, I’ll be taking a canter round this old conumdrum this pm at a family meeting, trying to decide if I should mention, let alone suggest, Threnody, antennae quivering nervously…

  9. Charles

    Tim, sometimes you really are the Anglican of secular celebrancy – so open-minded (relativist) that you qualify any informed statement with phrases like ‘in my humble opinion’ or ‘this is just a personal feeling’ or, as above, ‘ …is that just arrogance…?’ It’s a good trait as there’s always grey between black and white. But we all need to aspire to the lightest shade possible which means jumping off the fence into the ‘right’ side. I trust your hunches, they don’t always need to couched with such tiptoeing modesty. Then again, I’m often accused of arrogance!

  10. Charles

    Well, there’s a lot of dogmatism (in the loosest secular sense) on the internet Richard, and one tires of over-confidence based non very limited thought or empathy – but I take your point, sometimes one just needs to go for it and risk kicking a few shins…

    Arrogance is a charge often thrown – and often unreasonably – at those with definite beliefs, don’t you find? Big difference in our discussions between arrogance and a personal sense of certainty.

    No Threnody for this pm’s good people, they’ve plenty too much to fill their 30 minutes!

  11. Charles

    Good luck with Threnody next time. Go for it, goes the Nike catchphrase. Because they’re worth it, goes the L’Oreal’s.

    I quite agree that definite belief is not necessarily arrogance. Absolute certainties either way can cause tension between those with differing opinions. But mankind needs to learn to handle those tensions maturely, without hating each other. Apathy is not the answer as it’s an unresolved truce.

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