Friends of the non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome will be launched on 25 May 2006 to raise funds for the conservation and maintenance of what is better known as the Protestant Cemetery, an oasis of calm and beauty close to the historic centre of Rome. The meeting will be at the cemetery, Via Caio Cestio 6 at 18.00.

Despite its importance as a cultural monument, the cemetery receives no public funds. Private burial and maintenance fees account for some of the income, while a generous bequest from an American benefactor over 40 years ago provided long-term security until recently. These funds are no longer adequate for the cemeterys needs, and new capital needs to be raised.

The cemetery is also now in urgent need of repair. Last year the World Monuments Fund added it to its list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world.

Decay from air pollution and biological growth as well as corroding metals and vegetation are damaging the monuments and there is evidence of ground subsidence. Last year, an in-depth study of these problems was carried out by ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property the Intergovernmental organization founded by UNESCO and based in Rome).

Inadequate management in recent decades and rising costs have also added to the difficulties now facing this graveyard, which is not only the last resting place of the Romantic poets Keats and Shelley, but also of numerous important non-Catholic Italians and foreigners, who were either not permitted or did not want burial in Catholic cemeteries. There are 4,000 graves in this beautiful spot close to the Pyramid of Cestius (12 BC) and Romes ancient Aurelian Walls.

The earliest known burial there was of an Oxford student in 1738. For centuries it was the only place in Rome where non-Catholics, almost exclusively foreigners until the 20th century, could be laid to rest because they were not allowed burial in consecrated Catholic ground.