Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 9

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XXXIX, 8 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 10

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 9
Saint Christopher’s Cemetery

Venice, September 1833.

At the Arsenal, I was not far from the Isle of San Cristoforo, which serves today as a cemetery. The island contains a Capuchin monastery; the monastery has been razed and its site is merely an enclosure, square in shape. The graves are not very prolific, or at least they do not show above the levelled ground covered with grass. Against the west wall are piled half a dozen stone monuments; little crosses of blackened wood with a white date are scattered around the enclosure: this is how they inter the Venetians now whose ancestors rest in the mausoleums of the Frari and San Giovanni e Paolo. Society while expanding has abased itself; democracy has overcome death.

At the edge of the cemetery, to the east, one finds the sepulchres of Greek schismatics and those of Protestants; they are separated by a wall between and separated further from the Catholic burials by another wall: sad dissensions whose memory is perpetuated in the place where all quarrels end. Attached to the Greek cemetery is another entrenchment which protects a hole where they hurl children, born dead, into Limbo. Fortunate creatures! You have passed from the night of the maternal womb to the eternal night, without having traversed the light!

Near this hole, lie bones dug from the soil like roots, whenever they clear the ground for new graves: some, the oldest, are white and dry; others, recently unearthed, are yellow and moist. Lizards scamper among the remains, gliding between the teeth, traversing the eye-sockets and nostrils, emerging from the skulls’ mouths and ears, their homes or lairs. A few butterflies, symbols of the soul under skies descended from those beneath which the story of Psyche was invented, flutter among the mallow flowers growing between the bones. One cranium still bore hair the colour of mine. Poor old gondolier! Did you at least steer your boat better than I have steered mine?

A common grave remains open in the enclosure; a doctor has just descended there to lie beside his former patients. His black coffin was only covered with earth above, and his naked flank awaited the touch of another corpse’s flank to warm him. Antonio had deposited his wife there a fortnight ago, and the deceased doctor had dispatched her there. Antonio blessed the God who repays and revenges, and accepted his misfortune patiently. The individual coffins are conducted to this gloomy bazaar in individual gondolas followed by a priest in another gondola. As the gondolas are like coffins they suit the ceremony. A larger boat, the omnibus of the Cocytus, provides a service to the hospitals. Thus are revived the interments of Egypt and the myth of Charon and his barque.

In the cemetery towards Venice an octagonal chapel rises, consecrated to St Christopher. This saint, carrying a child on his shoulders over a ford, found him heavy: now, the child was the son of Mary and held the world in his hand; the altar painting depicts that great crossing.

And I too chose to carry a child King, but I did not notice that he was asleep in his cradle with ten centuries or more: a burden too heavy for my arms. In the chapel I noted a wooden candlestick (the candle was out), a stoop used to bless the graves, and a booklet: Pars Ritualis romani pro usu ad exsequianda corpora defunctorum: Part of the Roman ritual to be used for the obsequies of the dead; when we are already forgotten, Religion, immortal parent, ever unwearied, weeps for us and follows us, exsequor fugam: followed in flight. A box contained a flame; God alone disposes of the spark of life. Two quatrains written on ordinary paper had been pasted inside the notice boards on a couple of doors of the building:

‘Quivi dell’ uom le frali spoglie ascose
Pallida morte, o passeggier, t’addita, etc.
The fragile remains of men are buried here,
You, O passer-by, Pale Death marks out, etc.’

The only tomb in the cemetery which was the least unusual was raised in advance by a woman who then waited eighteen years before dying; the inscription explains this circumstance; so the woman longed in vain for her grave for eighteen years. What disappointment nurtured that enduring hope in her?

On a little black wooden cross this other epitaph can be read: Virginia Acerbi, d’anni 72, 1824. Morta nel bacio del Signore. Virginia Acerbi, 72 years old, 1824. Dead in the arms of the Lord: the years are hard on a beautiful Venetian.

Antonio said to me: ‘When this cemetery is full, they will leave it lie, and inter the dead on the Island of San Michele di Murano.’ The phrase was fitting; the harvest done one leaves the earth fallow and ploughs other furrows elsewhere.