Originally a prison island, Napoleon's occupying forces decreed that Venetians could not bury their deceased on any of the main Venetians islands, but only on what was to become Isola di San Michele, nicknamed The Island of the Dead. It is associated with the sestiere of Cannaregio from which it lies a short distance north east.
Along with neighbouring San Cristoforo della Pace, the island was a popular place for local travellers and fishermen to land. Mauro Codussi's Chiesa di San Michele in Isola of 1469, the first Renaissance church in Venice, and a monastery lie on the island.
San Cristoforo was selected to become a cemetery in 1807, designed by Gian Antonio Selva, when under French occupation it was decreed that burial on the mainland was unsanitary. The canal that separated the two islands was filled in during 1836, and subsequently the larger island became known as San Michele. Bodies were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas, including Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Brodsky, Jean Schlumberger, Sergei Diaghilev, Ezra Pound, Luigi Nono, Franco Basaglia and Zoran Mušič. Other attractions include the Cappella Emiliana chapel. The cemetery is still in use today.