In my country, you may have to request to your municipality the issuance of a “certificato di esistenza in vita“, literally “certificate of existence in life”. The form on the right with the phrasing “The undersigned […] DECLARES TO BE STILL ALIVE” has been downloaded from the website of an Italian municipality. After googling “existence in life”, getting mostly Buddhist websites, I began to suspect that translating this expression was beyond my linguistic abilities. So I turned to an Italian Consulate and to Wikipedia where I found the rather monthypythonian translations “Certificate of Life” and “Proof of Life” and the more familiar to me “Certificate of Existence”. Nevertheless, I feel that something was still lost in translation, maybe the sheer nonsense of standing in front of a counter asking somebody to assert in writing that you are not dead.

A few years ago, in an attempt to simplify the public administration, the Italian bureaucracy was addressed by the so called Bassanini laws, named after the centre-left MP Franco Bassanini. One promising idea had been to give citizens a limited amount of the certifying powers formerly owned only by government officials. While previously in order to get a phone line from the Italian Telecom you had to produce a residence certificate obtained from your municipality, now you would simply fill in a form and “self-certify” your residence. Shortly after, “self-certification forms” went in widespread use, although not without problems as several public offices had a tendency not to accept them, just like you would do with worn-out banknotes. But in the end it was a clear success, both for public offices and the citizens.

“Certificates of Life” are among those that citizens are allowed to write by themselves. For example, to receive their pension Italian citizens residing abroad are requested once a year to send a certificate of life to the Italian Social Security. The certificate, formerly issued by a consulate, may be written by the pensioner himself and sent by postal mail with a copy of his/her ID card. The clerk gets the papers and puts them on file without a blink, apart from sample checks that should be carried out periodically.

You will be tempted to say that the full circle of absurdity is completed but, unexpectedly, this is not so. Someone has suggested to turn the paper “self-certification” into a digital one. I doubt anyone has ever tried to do so, but in Italy this could be done in a perfectly legal way by digitally signing a “self-certification” declaration and sending it by “certified e-mail” (a secure legal e-mail introduced recently) to a public office. Unfortunately, there are still few digital signatures, few certified mailboxes and few citizens around willing to go through the hassle. For offices and citizens alike, the price of doing so may be so high in terms of time, money and patience to leave the paper version of the process intact. And, apart from requesting, obtaining, paying and using a digital signature, the recipient public administration must be willing and capable to modify their internal processes, otherwise their certified mailbox will most probably not accept your declaration.