Dying in Italy – Know the Landscape
Recently, I wrote philosophically about Learning to Dance with Both Life and Death. I shift now to navigating the practicalities of dying in Italy.
Dreams of living in Italy often include a vision of riding out one’s years here and drawing one’s last breaths in the country they’ve come to call home. If that is your dream, and a possible reality, then I recommend knowing the lay of the land. Dying in Italy can come with complications if you’re not prepared.
Know the legalities.
You don’t want to be caught unawares if you or your significant other dies while living in Italy. I suspect many people will read this post and exclaim “What a downer!” But I’ve promised to be faithful to addressing the full gamut of what life in Italy entails, and that includes the potential hurdles that can come with dying in Italy.
Having a relationship with a local attorney can be advantageous. He or she can help you navigate the laws and bureaucracy if you or the person who ends up being responsible for funeral and burial arrangements hit a snag. In my opinion, there’s no better person than one who knows how to navigate the often sticky Italian red tape rather than trying to figure it out on your own. And you can’t always rely on the local undertaker to just handle everything, especially if you’re out in a rural area with an undertaker who is “light” on facilities (such as being able to “hold” the deceased while making final arrangements).
I can hear the groans now. “Please don’t be so grim.”
For people who move here permanently, dying in Italy is a very real eventuality.
Recently, a dear friend living in Umbria lost his spouse of over forty years. When cremation arrangements were sought with the local undertaker, he ran into a problem with the local comune, which claimed their documents from the UK (both were British citizens) were missing a stamp from the Italian Consulate in England. The comune would not authorize a cremation. Two days of back-and-forth forced a solution to transport the deceased to a facility in Switzerland where cremations are performed more easily. That meant more than twice the cost of a local cremation. Imagine the angst trying to navigate this situation while in the immediate wake of death.
Why would the comune put the kibosh on a local cremation when my friend had all the necessary and correct UK documents, which should be valid throughout the EU? Why had another good friend (also from the UK) been able to arrange two cremations in Umbria without complications? I simply don’t know. But one thing you’ll learn when you live in Italy is that you can go to the same office and speak to a different person and get a different answer on any given day.
Dying in Italy usually results in burial, one that usually happens in short order.
For most U.S. citizens, they’re familiar with the predominance of Protestantism and cremations are a pretty frequent occurrence. According to CNN in 2016 over 50% of Americans chose cremation. Come to Italy, a country predominately Catholic, and you’ll find yourself in an environment where burial is the norm. While cremations are on the rise in Italy, they certainly don’t happen frequently.
Embalming also isn’t as readily available nor is it usually employed. Often a funeral and burial happen within a couple of days.
Burial is an interesting affair.
Since this is a country in which most people are buried, cemetery space is running short. In fact, in most cemeteries, you lease a space. It may be fifty years (sometimes renewable), it may be twelve–- as in the case for most burials on the Isle of San Michele, Venice. Read this fascinating The New York Times story to get further details.
“After about 12 years, most remains are exhumed and either cremated or deposited in an ossuary on the mainland.” “Venice’s Isle of the Dead” by Susan Allen Toth.
Death notifications are crucial.
Again, it’s best to understand these things ahead of time so that you or your surviving spouse or friends can act accordingly. Within seven days, the local comune must be notified at the Ufficio di Stato Civile. The undertaker usually handles this. When a death occurs at home the guarda medica should be called immediately.
A timely call to your closest consulate is also important. They will also be able to assist in other matters, such as…
Dying in Italy may be a person’s wish, but they may want to be shipped “back home” to be laid to rest with other loved ones. If that’s the case, you’ll want to have that spelled out, and you’ll definitely need to work with your consulate to pave the way for either the body or the ashes to be transported to the intended destination.
Know the costs.
Depending on whether shipping and/or repatriation arrangements are involved, and depending on whether you’re prepared for other matters, funeral arrangements can be inexpensive or expensive. Consider the situation shared above and how my friend ended up paying more than double. This is why I urge new expats to Italy to have a plan detailed and all the necessary documentation checked and double checked to ensure there will be no hiccups.
And, I advise setting aside funds in advance to cover the costs. Joint accounts get blocked, and other funds may have to wait for probate. My friend’s recent death experience has prompted me to start getting my affairs in order in this regard so that my other half (100% Italian) isn’t left with an uphill battle to carry out my wishes. Our documents are on record with the comune and our wills and power of attorney are complete.
Discussing the matters pertaining to death can be a bit of challenge since Italians, as a general rule, can be incredibly superstitious and don’t want to talk about death. They fear that by doing so it invites death to one’s door. I’d hate to stick my head in the sand about all this and then leave a mess, so we’re having the necessary conversations, all while I remain firmly dedicated to hanging out on this earth in beautiful Italy until I’m well into my nineties. Loads of runway there, I hope!