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European Times: Maenza, Southern italy - Italy's cities of the dead become overcrowded

THE WELL-DRESSED families laying bunches of chrysanthemums on their loved ones' tombs in Maenza over the bank holiday weekend were, to say the least, perplexed.

As families up and down Italy marked the feast of All Saints by paying their respects to their dead relatives, the mayor of Maenza, a town to the south of Rome, announced a measure that would dramatically transform the face of its one graveyard.

He dusted down an edict, dating back 200 years to the Napoleonic period, under which all burial plots must be the same size, with a plain white marble tombstone and a cross measuring little more than two feet in height. No more flashy multicoloured marble or ornate vaults with angels, just a nice symmetrical row of white crosses.

The original law was designed as part of a drive to remove graves from crypts on hygiene and health grounds. But its resurrection in Maenza caused consternation.

Italy, like many other Catholic countries, takes its funerals and its cemeteries very seriously. Millions of Italians visited graveyards yesterday, spending vast sums on flowers - five billion lira (pounds 1.7m) in the Milan area alone - and causing traffic jams around the cemeteries.

A consumers' group even issued a set of guidelines for the occasion; check the price of flowers thoroughly and choose ones that will last, visit graveyards during off-peak hours, watch your bag and lock your car, and bring your children - cemeteries needn't be sad places. But with one of the most top-heavy populations in Europe, the problem for most Italian cities is not so much whether funerals run on time but where to put the newly deceased.

Unlike British or American graveyards, where most people are buried underground, most Italians are laid to rest either in family vaults or in loculi, slightly- larger-than-coffin sized slots in immense funereal buildings. The tombs can cost up to pounds 5,000 to construct and in the south of Italy in particular it is commonplace to spend such sums on smart send-offs for loved ones.

But the inconvenience and danger of building ever upward are clear. On Friday a 72-year-old woman died in a fall from a ladder in Frosinone while trying to place flowers on the tomb of her husband, three metres above the ground. Unlike underground coffins, where extra space can be regained within a decade, remains in a loculi cannot be reduced until after 40 years.

With an average of 560,000 people dying each year, the situation is reaching crisis point, and efforts to encourage cremation have been singularly unsuccessful. A campaign several years ago by Rome's city council produced only a minimal increase and only 4.4 per cent of Italians take the ashes and urn route, compared with the European average of 32 per cent. "Cremation is still perceived as a poor man's option," said Daniele Fogli of the Italian funeral directors' association, "and denies people the chance to put on a grand show for their dearly departed."

One possible solution has originated in Naples, where treating your dead well has always been important. The website Requiescat.Org, complete with flashing purple cyber coffins, offers a virtual funeral, tombstone, flower candle and epitaph for just L60,000 (pounds 20) and for another L15,000 you can display a photo of your loved one. Friends, families or fans can send an e-mail message rather than a bunch of expensive chrysanthemums to mark All Saints Day. Among those who have already wound up, perhaps against their will, in Italy's first virtual cemetery are the Italian heroes Gianni Versace, Padre Pio, Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Agnelli Jnr and Frank Sinatra.