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An Italian Topography within a California Cemetery

An Italian Topography within a California Cemetery

Laura E. Ruberto (January 9, 2013)
Laura E. Ruberto
Italian immigrants' tombstone, Mountain View Cemetery and Gardens, Oakland, California

On the ethnicity of tombstones.


One of Giacomo Leopardi’s more famous canti, “Sopra un bassorilievo antico sepolcrale” (“On an Ancient Funeral Relief”), asks reade

rs to consider the life of a young woman by directing their gaze to her tombstone.

I am reminded of his words as I stroll through Oakland’s main cemetery, an urban retreat that lies just a few blocks from where I live.

      Asciutto il ciglio ed animosa in atto,
Ma pur mesta sei tu. Grata la via
O dispiacevol sia, tristo il ricetto
A cui movi o giocondo,
Da quel tuo grave aspetto
Mal s’indovina.
       Your eyes are dry, your movements spirited,
                and yet you’re downcast. If your way
is glad or hard, the destination
that you travel to is dire or happy,
your grave expression doesn’t indicate.
(Giacamo Leopardi, translated by Jonathan Galassi)
Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery and Gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, was to be (like Olmstead's other works) a nineteenth-century model for balancing the human and the natural in a single topography, even when that meant removing native plants or relocating communities that had lived there for generations.
Walking through it, I am struck at how many headstones record immigrants’ journeys to the U.S., from Ireland, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and elsewhere. This marking happens not just through assumptions gathered by reading the names of the dead but also by the materiality of the headstones themselves—the use of different languages on the headstones, the style of the tomb markers, or the way the burial sites are tended by survivors.

Especially striking is the way the graves so eloquently and seemingly haphazardly describe the diversity of Oakland and surrounding cities. Rather than segregating ethnic groups in different parts of the cemetery, the constructed geography reflects the multiculturalism of the area enclosing it.
Gravestones written in Italian (in whole or in part) catch my eye first. Often the Italian is nonstandard, in dialect, English-infused, Spanish-tinged, or perhaps merely marred (or improved) by a mason’s typo.

Although the Amador Memorial Company, a headstone-engraving business, is right down the street from the cemetery, I’m led to think about the well-known Italian stonecutters of Barre, Vermont, reminded that both Barre and Oakland once had high numbers of immigrants from Northern Italy.

Even taken alone, apart from their wider context, the designs of the gravestones gesture toward questions of ethnicity. The simple crosses, the unusual shapes, the decorated marble, and the use of photo-ceramic portraits are to different degrees imported customs, carried across the Atlantic, renegotiated along the Pacific. In particular, the photo-ceramic portraits, like the use of Italian itself, immediately codes the tombstones as Italian, constructing a kind of imagined community for the deceased (read Joseph Inguanti's article "Domesticating the Grave: Italian-American Memorial
Practices at New York's Calvary Cemetery").

There are other places in California to find graves linked to the state’s Italian immigrants. Not far from here is the San Francisco Italian Cemetery, built by La Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, a benevolent society started during the Gold Rush by recent Italian settlers. The Italian graveyard opened in 1899 in Colma, on the eve of San Francisco’s ban on burials within the city’s borders. Since then, well-known Italian Americans have been interred there (e.g., Beniamino Bufano, Joe DiMaggio, A.P. Giannini, Vince Guaraldi, and George Moscone), as well as thousands of less-famous Italian Americans.
The cemeteries of California's missions are also speckled with the graves of Italians, and countless smaller towns up and down the coast have cemeteries that outline some of the transnational lives of immigrants and their children: from Martinez (the birthplace of Joe Di Maggio, the resting place of Sabato Rodia), to Benicia (where in the city’s Military Cemetery lies one Italian, a former World War II prisoner of war—marking a forgotten aspect of the movement of Italians abroad).

Together these tombstones create a suggestive topography of an Italian California and hint at some of the ways that the cultural practices we carry around with us throughout life don’t necessarily end with our deaths.

Click through the slideshow below for more photos of Italo-tombstones found at the Oakland Mountain View Cemetery.


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I'm very interested in the

I'm very interested in the Italian American Cemetery you mention and others of that nature, such as one in New Orleans area. An older relative of mine once remarked to me that the first thing an Italian immigrant did when he knew he was going to remain in America was buy a burial plot. I don't know if there was any truth to that, but I do know Italian immigrants who speak about their soon-to-be resting places with a sense of satisfaction that others might have when talking about a vacation condo they purchased somewhere. A few observations here in NYC... I've spent a good amount of time wandering around Calvary, St. John's, and a few smaller cemeteries in Brooklyn (Holy Cross, Linden Hill) and noticed that Italian-language headstones are more of less omnipresent, usually with correct Italian, but photos are not on the markers as they are in your examples and as one finds in Italy. Also, Greenwood Cemetery built, maybe about 30 years ago, "community mausoleums" that look somewhat similar to what one finds in Italy: long rows with stacks about six or seven vaults high. I don't know if they made these specifically with the Italian community mind (as they have done there recently for the Chinese community), but the Italian population is heavily represented in the community mausoleums, often 100% in many sections. Clearly, this setting, reminiscent of Italy is more appealing than the wide open grass field common in the USA. In this case, the vaults all have photos of the deceased and they are not only predominantly Italian, but also many people from the same neighborhood. Visiting one day with my grandfather a few years back, right near my grandmother's vault were numerous neighbors from their block. While the "old" neighborhood has changed in the present life, it remains memorialized here in a very unexpected way.

lruberto's picture

NY cemetaries

Thanks for these comments and observations! I've seen some of the places you mention but had not thought about the omnipresence of italian markers there. I need to get back east and take a look! The Colma (San Francisco) Italian Cemetary is a pretty amazing place but otherwise, I don't know of another cemetary in Calif that is predominately ItalAm..... (and, I'm sorry it took me this long to see your post--a glitch in the i-italy system meant that I only saw it now!) -Laura Ruberto