All Souls Day is on November 2nd, a day when Catholics and many other Christians traditionally commemorate the Faithful Departed, remembering in prayer all those who have died. This year on All Souls Day I visited the monumental Roman cemetery of Verano, next to the Basilica of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) “Outside the Walls” of the Eternal City. The minor basilica of San Lorenzo is the burial place of the early Christian martyrs Saint Stephen and Saint Lawrence, both of them deacons of the Church. It is fitting that there is a cemetery next to the basilica as well, for many faithful departed.
The day before All Souls Day is All Saints Day, on November 1st, kept as a “Roman holiday,” that is, generally not a day of work or school and minimal public transportation available. There is almost a “welcome to winter” atmosphere in the city. The All Saints Day holiday extends to all of Italy.
All Souls Day on November 2nd is a normal work and school day in Italy and public transportation is back in full swing. Though not a holiday, it is traditionally a day to visit cemeteries, for believers and non-believers alike. The question of what happens afterwards is a matter of faith and religious practice, of course, but I’m told non-practitioners participate in the day as well, visiting the graves of loved ones. Italy is such a Christian country in its roots that it is no surprise that cemetery visits are still prevalent on All Souls Day. Those unable to visit cemeteries on November 2nd often do so the day before, on All Saints Day.
Walking to Verano cemetery next to the Basilica of San Lorenzo takes about forty minutes from our Sant’Ambrogio residence. One can also reach the cemetery by tram or bus, but we monks who went decided to go on foot, since the sun was shining and morning temperatures were in the low fifties. Not bad for November!
Those who speak Spanish might wonder why the cemetery is called “Verano,” the Spanish word for “summer.” Verano in this context comes from Roman Republic times, as the cemetery was at the field of Verani, a Roman General. The grounds have been used these past two thousand yearsas a place of burial. It was also near to the catacomb of Santa Ciriaca.
The present stately appearance of “Il Cimitero Monumentale del Verano,” as it is called in Italian, began in earnest in the early 1880s, construction lasting from 1805 to 1814. The cemetery was formally consecrated in 1835, and work continued under Popes Gregory XVI and Blessed Pius IX. The latter is buried in the Basilica of Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo), next to the Verano cemetery. Construction of more cemetery buildings and monuments at Verano took place during Italian re-unification from 1870 to 1871.
The Verano cemetery and next door San Lorenzo basilica were heavily damaged by Allied troops during World War II, on July 19, 1943. The actual intended target that day was a nearby steel factory, but miscalculation occurred and some one thousand five-hundred lives were lost in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo and Verano. The following day Pope Pius XII and Cardinal Martini, who eventually became Pope Paul VI, visited the grief-stricken neighborhood. Slowly restoration took place at the basilica and cemetery. Today there are no signs of war damage.
The impressive two-hundred acre Verano cemetery is a tranquil place where thousands of deceased are entombed in splendid monuments as well as in much simpler ones. At the entrance to the cemetery are four huge marble statutes, representing personifications of Meditation, Hope, Charity and Silence. The connection of these four themes with death and eternal life are obvious.
For us monks of Sant’Ambrogio, the principle reason for going on All Souls Day to this particular cemetery, since there are ten others in Rome as well, is because of the connection of Verano with our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation. Normally Benedictines are buried in their own monastery, as we monks make a vow of stability. This means that even if we die somewhere other than the monastery to which our stability belongs, most likely we would be sent to the home monastery.
This is not always practical or possible, especially in time of war, for example, so a number of monks of our Congregation have been buried here in Rome, rather than at their monasteries much farther afield. This apparently happened particularly during the Great Wars (I and II) of the twentieth century.
It took some hunting, but we finally found the monument for the monks of the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation buried at the Verano cemetery. A thick but very simple square grey stone slab, perhaps five feet by five feet in diameter, sits flat on a larger stone base on the ground, amidst similar markers of dozens of other Catholic Orders and Religious Congregations of men and women, as well as private families, who also have underground vaults nearby.
I confess at this point I am not sure of the exact number of monks in the vault beneath the ground at Verano cemetery, since there are no names on the stone slab, but only the inscribed letters, “Congr. Sublacense O.S.B.,” all in capital letters.
With that in mind, not knowing the exact names or numbers of those buried there, we monks who went there prayed for all of the monks buried in the vault and blessed the graves. We left flowers and a little red battery-operated votive lamp that presumably only lasted some hours, small tributes to our brethren who were “faithful unto death” and now await the resurrection of the dead in this hallowed ground, close to the burial place of the great deacon-martyrs, Saints Stephen and Lawrence. May they intercede for all the Faithful Departed.