The International Jewish Cemetery Project identified 56 Jewish cemeteries in Italy. Several more are mentioned in the literature from different centuries, but can no longer be located.Italian Jewish cemeteries reflect a changing history of burial customs, ranging from the first century catacombs to modern monumental tombs.
Archaeologists have discovered ornate Jewish catacombs with hinged doors and gabled columns dating from the early Christian era. This suggests that the practice of cave burial increased from the biblical era, through the Babylonian period and into Roman Palestine. Examples of cave burials are found in Rome (Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Villa Torlonia, Monteverde), in Basilicata (Catacombs of Venosa) and in Naples, where the burial grounds are no longer identifiable.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 1:5) describes the practice of likut atzamot (gathering of bones), the two-phase procedure of burying bodies in deep pits (mahamorot) and waiting for the skin to dissolve before removing the bones for reburial. The bones were then placed in an ossuary, or bone box, in anticipation of the resurrection of the dead.
Because of supernatural associations with the dead, Talmudic rabbis ruled that, where possible, cemeteries were to be situated at least fifty cubits (about 22 meters) from the nearest residence.
The ways in which Diaspora Jews acquired their burial grounds was regulated by pre-rabbinic prescriptions and rabbinic law. Italian cemeteries provide important demographic and cultural information. Depending on the period and the provenance of each community, burial stones contain data on the social condition of the deceased and their families, and, when epitaphs adorns the tombs, details on travels, customs and daily life.
In Italy, the existence of Jewish burial associations is documented starting in late antiquity and attests to a history of evolving burial and mourning traditions. In 1619 Leone Da Modena was commissioned to write a pamphlet entitled Balm for the Soul and Cure for the Bones. This constitutes one of the first manuals for the dying known in the Western Jewish tradition.
Rituals and rules regulating burial were progressively formalized. Cave burial became associated with pagan practice and progressively abandoned. In Italy, by the early Middle Ages, ground burial and the use of flat or cylinder headstones became standard practice. Stones placed on graves, which in late Antiquity were regarded by Jews as weights that could entrap demons, became repositories of the living memory of the deceased and a sign of affection and respect from their families and community.
In the past 15 years Italian Jewish cemeteries of many regions have been catalogued and documented headstone by headstone. Epitaphs, inscriptions, demographic and onomastic information has been organized in databases that are available to scholars and the public.
The Jews of Europe and the moment of death in medieval and modern times
When, in early 1556, Abraham Colonia, a wealthy Italian Jew, died suddenly in the town of Viadana, one of the local rabbinic authorities ruled that his body should not be accompanied to burial since he did not confess publicly, and was therefore “akin to one who has no place in the next world.” There were others who argued, however, that there was deliverance for his soul, for his lips were seen to move silently in the final moments before his death.(1) This stress upon deathbed confession as a publicly witnessed ritual was no isolated instance, but rather a common feature of Jewish death in the Italian communities of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Ferrara’s Gemilut Hasadim confraternity, the first of its kind to be founded in Italy, began in 1552 to require its officials, when visiting a member who had been seriously ill for three days “to encourage him to confess his sins before God and to deliver his final testament before his family.”
Leone Da Modena’s Manuals for the Dying
The structured mourning rituals of the Jews, such as the shiva with its specific demands on the mourners and their visitors, or saying kaddish, are quite known. Far less well-known is the existence of detailed rituals for people who are dying. Such rituals were created and printed in book form during the 16th and 17th centuries, first in Italy and then all around the Jewish world. These manuals formed a new genre in Jewish traditional literature–”books for the sick and the dying”–and tell us something about the ways in which modernity both threatened and lent new forms of expression to Jewish identity.
The herald of the new genre was a booklet of 18 small pages composed by the colorful rabbi and prolific writer Leone Modena (1571-1648), which was published in Venice in 1619. Modena named this booklet Balm for the Soul and Cure for the Bones.