Day of the Dead in Sicily

November 2, 2011

*first published Nov 2, 2009*

A few years ago, I wanted to buy a ruin of a house on a solitary road out beyond the Ragusa cemetery. Sicilian friends (perfectly rational, well-educated ones) said I was matta, insane, that I’d be visited at night by dead souls.

“What do you mean?” I hollered. “I live two blocks from a cemetery in the US and I’ve never seen a ghost!”

They looked at me mournfully and insisted that the danger was real. They themselves would absolutely never pay me a visit there!

So I gave up the idea of that house with its faded pink walls, shocked at how alive the dead are in Sicily.

Sicilian cemeteries are always set well outside of town behind imposing walls. Below is the Scicli cemetery, full of mausoleums, magnificent pines and tall cypress.


Cemeteries here are well-tended, with custodians and on-site florists. They seem to be open most of the day, even during the long lunch break.



Many of the tombs show pictures of the dead.


Streets have names, just like in a real town.


Today is il Giorno dei Morti, Day of the Dead. Sicilian families flock to cemeteries—arms overflowing with lilies, mums, roses, and daisies—to spend time with their dearly departed.


18 comments to Day of the Dead in Sicily

  • Charlie

    When we were in Sicily this September, we spent about an hour walking through the cemetery just outside of Chiaramonte Gulfi. It was to me both a solemn and inspiring experience at the same time — solemn because its obvious that many families sorely missed their loved ones, and inspiring because it made clear the importance and closeness of families that seems to be disappearing in American culture.

    My wife took many pictures, though I must admit we both felt at times uncomfortable in doing so and wondered (silently) if we were infringing in any way on the private lives of the families and souls. While there, we were asked by a young boy, perhaps 13 to 16 who spoke some English (a million times better than our Italian) why we were walking through the cemetery — I think he was also curious why we were taking all the pictures. For me the answer was “it’s history, and part of the Sicilian experience”.

    One of the items that struck me was how there were so many common family surnames, and how streets / areas would have a given name concentrated in that area. If I had planned better, I would have visited the cemetery for Modica (I assume there was one) and looked for my family’s surname as my grandfather came from Sicily.

    I think a visit to one or more cemeteries is as important to understanding / experiencing Sicily as visiting the churches.

    • Jann

      Charlie, thank you for your comment. I know the cemetery in Chiaramonte Gulf that you visited. It’s beautiful. There is a lovely cemetery in Modica–above Modica Bassa.

  • Dennis Berry

    Permanent Parisians a great book by Judi Culbertson. My wife and i spent 5 days visiting the cemeteries of Paris. A little bread, wine and cheese with Jim Morrison a great visit.

    • Jann

      This made me giggle. (Five days in Parisian cemeteries!) I hope Pina (a Calabrian commenter on this post) reads this! She won’t feel so odd.

      We (husband, sister and I) went to Pere LaChaise this summer to look for Jim. I was also hoping to find Marcel (as in Proust) but it was raining and freezing cold (June in Paris!) so we hung out with Jim for awhile and left. Next time we’ll bring wine and cheese. Good idea! Also, I’ll wear comfy shoes–those cobbles in Pere LaChaise are killers.

  • O Dio mio! My father died on November 2, seven years ago. He was of Italian heritage (Calabria). I visited one such cemetery as you describe here when I was in Tropea. It was fascinating; just like a small, well-tended city, as you say. It felt like it would be easy to get lost there. Those gravestones with the portraits are so beautiful. I wish I had taken more photos of them. I wonder if you have any regrets for not having bought that ruin of a house. You can tell your friends that ghosts don’t live in cemeteries (I have it on good authority!)

    • Jann

      Oh, my. What a coincidence–the day of your father’s death…. I DO have a few regrets about that ruin of a house. Instead I bought another ruin of a house… But I periodically go back to that pink-walled ruin just to see it. No one has bought it yet, so perhaps it really is haunted!

  • Don’t identify Italy with Sicily! Whether it is the Cimitero Monumentale del Verano (Rome), Staglieno (Genoa), Cimitero Maggiore (Milan) or the small ceneteries around the churches on the Dolomite Mountains, Italian culture is also “Culto dei Morti”. Italian culture expressed through the arts is rooted on the Christian concept of life/death/afterlife and community.

    • Jann

      Hi Mario,
      Thanks for your comment, and the point you make! Since I live in Sicily, that’s what I talk about, and to tell you the truth, I’m not always 100% sure about what customs and traditions are typically Sicilian and which ones apply more generally to the rest of Italy. In terms of Day of the Dead, you’re right that it’s also celebrated throughout Italy, in Spain, Mexico, and other places. Grazie!

  • —Jann,
    Stunning. Gorgeous.
    Since my sister’s death, I find cemeteries beautifully peaceful.
    -especially the one above.
    I love the photos of the people. I wonder who they are, what they did, who they loved? Xx

    • Jann

      Thank you, Kim. I know what you mean about finding grave sites of even of strangers more moving after someone close to you dies. xxxxhugs

    • Pina Marra

      I think that cemeteries are peaceful places, some people find them scary or upsetting, but I don’t…I like the quiet alleys and the trees and I linger on pictures of dead people…am I unhealthy?

    • Jann

      🙂 I don’t think so! I love hanging around in them, too. Maybe it’s a way to come to terms with one’s own mortality, or maybe it’s just a place to get away from the rush of everyday life, or just a chance to appreciate the works of art that Italian cemeteries are.

  • Jann, Sicilian cemeteries remind me a lot of Spanish ones. My aunts both go every Saturday to clean the tombstone, trim the grass and to place fresh flowers of their dead husbands. And bear in mind that these men died more than twenty years ago! You’re right–the dead are indeed very much alive! Personally, I don’t think I would’ve bought the house by the Ragusa cemetery. I’ve been watching too many zombie series lately! hee hee! 🙂

    • Jann

      I don’t watch those kind of movies (too terrifying for me!), but that’s probably why I have no such fears. 🙂

  • That looks so much like the cemetery in Racalmuto where my great-grandparents and their relatives are resting. And, you’re right, it’s beyond the town area. Beautiful.

    • Jann

      How wonderful, Rosann, that you could visit your great-grandparents there. That must have been emotional for you.

  • My dad”s ashes were flown back to Sicily (Termini Imerese) to buried in the family plot in 2006! He said he wanted to be buried in the land he was born in!
    I can’t visit him like I’d want but I know he is happy somewhere!

    • Jann

      Wow, Lucy, that’s quite something that he wanted his ashes returned to Sicily. How touching. When were you last there?

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