Postcard from Turin, Italy: Letting the graveyard provide introductions

Carlo Tancredi Falletti (1782-1838), Marquis of Barolo, was mayor of Turin in 1827 when he determined the city needed an elegant new cemetery. At the time, Turin was the capital of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

The Monumental Cemetery of Turin (Cimitero Monumentale di Torino) occupies almost 150 acres of land. And, once again, this taphophile is introducing you to a city via a visit to its residents of yore.

A woman after my own heart, Manuela Vetrano has written a book on this particular cemetery – Torino Silenziosa.

It was 2011 and I was walking through the most ancient part of the Cemetery of Turin, surrounded by magnificent works of art by important names in Italian history. I started wondering why there was no one else but me. Superstition? Fear? I thought it would be nice to let others know about this rich and important place. I started looking for books and documents about the Cemetery and I spent many hours inside it to observe and study tombs and monuments. I collected so much material that it allowed me to open my blog, lead guided tours, and write a book, too. The stories that struck me the most refer to almost unknown personalities.

“The Monumental Cemetery of Turin: Interview with Manuela Vetrano,” Emanuela Borgatta Dunnett, Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2018

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Hey, don’t knock peanuts

The graceful statue of Caterina Campondonico is among the most popular in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno because of how it was secured. Peanuts.

“It’s only peanuts” is an idiom that never made sense in our house. Peanuts meant everything to us. My father, Lawrence Conway Brennan (1918-1988), was deep in peanuts.

Not that we grew up in a peanut patch, but our father was treasurer of the Columbian Peanut Company in Norfolk, Virginia. His engagement in the nerve-wracking gamble of predicting peanut deliverables by the railcar-load, subject to all the possible whims of Mother Nature in several southern states, sent three girls to college.

Campondonico scrimped and saved lire throughout her life to commission Lorenzo Orengo (1838-1909) to sculpt this prime example of Bourgeois Realism art in 1881, prior to her death. She funded the monument, as fine as those of neighboring aristocrats, from a lifetime of sales of doughnuts and nuts on the streets and at fairs in Genoa. She clutches a rosary of hazelnuts and a pair of doughnuts in her hands. The restoration of the statue was completed in 2016 by American Friends of Italian Monumental Sculpture.

“The Peanut Seller” is far from alone in the 82-acre cemetery; she is in the company of more than 2-million other Genovesi. The cemetery opened its gates to welcome its first deceased occupants in 1851, and the majority of its monuments are from the period of the following hundred years.

In addition to Staglieno’s monumental pantheon and marbled halls for the dead, families erected individual house-like or chapel-like mausolea climbing up the surrounding hillsides on narrow “streets,” forming sort of a suburban village overlooking those resting down below.

If this abundance of photos fails to satisfy your taphophilia, you have a severe obsession. As do I. I finally added a separate category on this blog for locating and scrolling down through related posts: Haunting Graveyards.

And, maybe, in memory of Caterina “The Peanut Seller” and Connie, my father aka “Goober,” rethink that dismissive idiom. Perhaps even improve a few sayings. A peanut in the hand is worth two in the ground. A peanut sold can be a penny saved. The road to heaven is paved with peanut hulls.

Haunting the graveyard to unearth the past

The pains of death are past.

Labor and sorrow cease.

And life’s long warfare closed at last.

His soul is found in peace.

Headstone of Joseph Coker, 1799-1881

One day I found myself, sitting in the middle of the carpet surrounded by boxes stacked in an attorney’s office on the 30th floor, rooting through another woman’s purse.

This really was not a planned direction for my career, but, undisciplined, I have always let it take numerous unscheduled detours.

I wanted the vintage pocketbook to spill the story of Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker out on the floor in front of me. Although its contents provided tiny glimpses of her personality, it was going to take a lot more time and effort to flesh out her and husband Max. Thanks to the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund, I devoted two years to getting acquainted with the two hardworking dairy farmers who reside in the Coker Cemetery, resulting in the publication of The Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park.

The Voelckers’ farm was part of a community of dairy farmers clustered together just north of Loop 410 in San Antonio. These families were unified by school, church and graveyard into a tightly knit community – the Coker settlement, and the Coker Cemetery Association plans to reunite these families in a book.

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Farewell, my wife

and children all,

From you a Father

Christ doth call.

Headstone of James J. Tomerlin, 1858-1896

As the Voelckers did, many of these hardworking farmers retired to the Coker Cemetery. I went to visit them recently, hoping they would whisper tales to me.

The jarring sounds of bulldozers working on the new portion of Wurzbach Parkway crashing through the former farms at first spoiled the peacefulness. But the spirits in this bucolic setting gradually quashed the intrusive noise, leaving me and several deer free to wander in the past.

The hours spent in the Coker Cemetery revealed some of the names of the farming families populating the settlement: Coker, Gerfers, Hampton, Harrison, Jones, Marmon, Smith, Tomerlin, Autry, Dekunder, Gulick, Harper, Isom, Maltsberger, Pipes, Tomasini and Voelcker. While their dairies in the area known as Buttermilk Hill were swallowed by behemoth San Antonio, the nonprofit association maintaining this historical cemetery knows their stories merit preservation.

As families dispersed from farms, remnants of the area’s history scattered with them. The Coker Cemetery Association asked me to bring these back together as a gift to the descendents of all who rest under the tombstones behind the old Coker church.

Charged with weaving bits of historical information together to illuminate this oft-forgotten portion of San Antonio’s rural heritage, I find myself again looking for chards. A page recording births and weddings in a family Bible. A brand registration from the late 1800s. A class photo from the old Coker schoolhouse. A tax return from the 1920s. A long-forgotten diary or letters tucked away in a shoebox. Memories grandparents shared about families’ arrivals in San Antonio or life on the farm.

I am asking descendants to introduce me to their ancestors from the Coker community, to search their studies, basements and attics and dust off the cobwebs in their minds to share memories and artifacts for this project. To ensure their ancestors are:

Gone but not forgotten.

Headstone of Rebecca Ford, 1823-1881

Thank goodness for detours, always full of unexpected opportunities and discoveries.