What is Il Giorno dei Morti (All Souls’ Day), and why is it important in Italy?

A Guest Post by Rachel Vermiglio Smith

All around the world, the end of October and early November is a time to celebrate the enduring connection between the dead and the living.

In the U.S., we celebrate Halloween on October 31 every year, and while it may seem so, this isn’t just a randomly selected day by candy manufacturers.

It’s the night before All Saints’ Day or La Festa di Ogni Santi, in Italian.

All Saints’ Day in Italy, as well as other places around the world, is a special and sacred holiday. In Italy, it is always November 1st and it is the day to honor all the saints found in Catholicism.

The origins of this holiday in Italy date back to the very beginning of Christianity, and Catholics and Italians everywhere attend mass to honor their favorite saints.

For me, however, as a resident in Italy, I find the day following All Saints’ Day to be the more interesting holiday.

November 2 is Il Giorno dei Morti, which translate to All Souls’ Day or Day of the Dead.

Although this sounds like a scary tradition, it’s actually beautiful.

After celebrating and honoring the lives of saints, the day after is dedicated to honoring the lives of the people close to us who have passed on.

Last year, I was lucky to be in my family’s hometown in Southern Italy, where traditions are still deeply rooted, and was able to take part in this beautiful celebration.

On the morning of All Souls’, while I drank my cappuccino and blearily eyed my cousin who somehow was way more awake than me, I was informed it was a sacred holiday and that we had to hurry up and get ready.

When I asked where we were going, my cousin enthusiastically informed me that we were going to the cemetery, and I was gently reminded to wear my absolute best.

I couldn’t understand her happiness, or why I needed to get so dressed up, but I went along with it anyway and trudged off to prepare for the day.

Upon arrival at the town cemetery, I was shocked at how many people were there with us; we barely found parking four blocks away!

Everyone donned their Sunday best, the women in heels and stockings and the men in top hats and ties. Children were dressed impeccably and some had brought balloons and flowers.

Entering the cemetery was like going to a subdued party.

Everyone was chatting happily and children were running around gleefully.

I didn’t really understand what was happening or what I was witnessing until I heard a little girl, tugging on her mom’s coat, “Mamma! Hurry up! I want to visit grandma and thank her for my new toys! Hurry up! HURRY UP!”

Once my cousin saw my open mouth and lack of comprehension of how a dead grandmother could have left gifts for this child, she explained to me that on this day, the dead visit their family and leave little gifts for the children all around the house.

I remarked how in America, a cemetery is almost never a happy place filled with children’s laughter, and my cousin then pointed out that she had seen that in movies and she thought it was because our ideas about death were inherently different.

She told me how death isn’t a scary ordeal for them because at least once a year, everyone comes to clean your grave, say hello and thank you for their ancestral heritage.

They’ve accepted it as a normal part of life.

I was nearly moved to tears by the beauty and peace in which these people had accepted the inevitable flow of life, particularly from such an early age.

And, as I was led around the cemetery that day, my cousin patiently pointing out every aunt, uncle, great great great grandparent, cousin and fourth aunt twice removed that rested there, I felt an intense sense of peace instead of sadness.

Because of this beautiful tradition, these people aren’t forgotten, but honored, appreciated and loved.

I visited at least 20 relatives that day. Per tradition, I kissed all of their headstones, and followed my cousins lead as we stopped at each gave, silently thanking each one of them for living their life many years ago, that lead to mine, today.

Rachel graduated with a degree in Italian language and literature. After falling in love with Italian art as well, she went on for a master’s in art history focusing on the Italian Renaissance. She currently lives in her favorite place in the world, Florence, Italy. Keep up with Rachel at her site, Italianista, or The Iceberg Project, where she is managing editor. This post originally appeared on The Iceberg Project.

My family did not celebrate the holiday here in America, so I never understood the beauty and customs associated with All Soul’s Day, although I always felt a special connection. Now that I am older, and have lost loved ones along the way, I feel comforted by the traditions of this holiday. Tante grazie, Rachel, for such a wonderful description! –Stacy di Anna Pollard




10 Comments Add yours

  1. bonniegm says:

    It is such a beautiful way to acknowledge and continue the connection that links generations. When last in Italy we made a special visit to the family of an Italian friend who had been living, and then died, in Alaska. We had shared a dessert and vin santo, toured the house and saw his room and all of his things carefully preserved and then went to the cemetery to visit his grave and place flowers. It was so beautiful and his family so appreciated our coming there. They were, to a person, absolutely astounded to hear that in the U.S. there are no photos of loved ones on the graves. Unthinkable in Italy!! Of course in the U.S. people do not often stay in one place, which makes the visiting and care taking of graves much more difficult. I am sad to think of the graves of my grandparents, great-grandparents and my mom and uncle not being visited and taken care of.

    1. I’m happy you enjoyed the post. I think it is a beautiful tradition as well. My grandparents have photos on their grave which was unsettling to me at first, but now I realize very Italian. xo

  2. sara says:

    Love this. I am from Italy, but wrote about the Mexican version of this day yesterday, so I was excited to see you wrote about it from my home country ❤️🇮🇹

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, thank you stopping my my site and sharing your thoughts!

  3. sara says:

    love this, im from italy, but i wrote about the Mexican version of this holiday yesterday. was excited to see you wrote it about my home country❤️🇮🇹

  4. Tracy Maria Aucone Shoman says:

    Very interesting, thank you for sharing. I was just in Mexico where they celebrate something similar called Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). They make altars with photos, flowers, candles, and momentos. It is something we can do in our homes to remember and thank our ancestors. These are all beautiful and meaningful traditions.

    1. Beautiful tradition! This would be a lovely thing to do in our own homes. Thanks for being here! Hope you are well.

  5. Gail says:

    So interesting -will remember this each Halloween; appreciate memories with pictures

  6. Santi Kogerman says:

    Stacy, this is lovely! What a blessing to honor those no longer with us and to remember where we come from. II Giorno die Morti has similar tradition to Dia de los Muertos. My brother Gio (Giorgio), who lives in Antigua, Guatemala and says that they have huge festivals and parades to honor the dead and that it is really colorful and beautiful. I wish we celebrated the same here in the states. Here, families rarely remember past the second generation. I think that is really sad. Bit by bit I have been unfolding and piecing together our families heritage. The good, the bad, the ugly. I still want to know. My Italian side dates back to the time of Julius Ceasar located in the Frosinone region.There is an actual place called Rossilli still existing today. I’m told that it was a sanctuary and refuge and then monastery. Crazy!!! I can’t wait to visit and take it all in. I think it’s so awesome that you have embraced and gone 1000 steps further than me by actually learning the language and connecting with family from the home land- incredible! I also love that you share your stories with me.It helps me to reconnect.

    While I think its important to honor the dead, it’s also important to celebrate the living. Especially their births and the gratitude we have for them sharing and being a special part of our lives.So tomorrow I will honor the dead but celebrate you.



    Santi Kogerman

    1. thank you thank you Santi for the great info and the well wishes! 🙂 PS my Italian grandmother’s family is from Frosinone!

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