Dressed in Black

Three Generations of Women Mourning over a Coffin at Mafia Funeral in San Luca, Reggio Calabria May 5, 1993. Freeze Frame of video shot by APTN Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

When we first moved to Italy, a family friend of Gustavo’s died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was in his 50s. Gustavo took me to the funeral in the small town of Aprilia about an hour south of Rome. Everyone was dressed in black. The large wooden coffin was by the altar. I sat through the mass, not understanding much of what the priest was saying.

When it came to an end, a terrible wailing and sobbing arose from the front pews. As a group of men stepped forward to carry out the casket, the man’s wife, wailing hysterically, threw herself onto the coffin. Several people tried to peel her off while the pallbearers, tears streaming down their cheeks, eased the heavy wooden coffin onto their shoulders. Suddenly, I was overcome by a wave of sadness and began quietly crying and sniffling. Gustavo glanced at me and did a double take,

“Why are you crying? You didn’t even know him,” he demanded.“But it is so SAD, I feel so sad,” I snivelled, “I’ve never been to such a sad funeral.

And that was the truth. Italian funerals are meant to be sad. One is permitted to bawl one’s eyes out. Sometimes there are even people that help one to feel sad. They are called ‘prefiche’. Historically in Italy the prefiche, often women, accompany the funeral procession, pulling at their hair, wailing desperately and throwing themselves on the coffin creating a general sense of anguish. Norman Lewis, a British Intelligence Officer in World War II, described the prefiche in his book titled “Naples 44”: “Professional mourners, hired by the locality to reinforce the grief of the stricken families, were running up and down the street, tearing at their clothing and screaming horribly.”

Woman Mourning at Mafia Funeral in San Luca, Reggio Calabria, May 5, 1993. Freeze Frame of video shot by Gianfranco Stara

I was raised with a rather WASP-y stiff upper lip mentality. ‘Screaming horribly’ is not what you do at WASP funerals. At memorial services for my grandparents, the atmosphere was almost upbeat as friends and family recounted happy memories of the deceased, in celebration of their lives. In sharp contrast, at Italian funerals the emphasis is to mourn the death and release one’s sadness.

There are some Italian traditions related to death that intensify grief in a way that I find too macabre. When Caterina was in the sixth grade, Sister Bruna, a kindly nun who worked at her school, died unexpectedly on a Thursday. On Friday, I dropped Caterina off for her catechism class at the Piazza Euclide church across the street from the school. After catechism, my plucky little Cate told me, “Mamma, today our teacher took us to see Sister Bruna’s body in the church. Her face was green and her eyes were purple.” I was horrified, but Caterina did not seem distressed in any way. She took it in stride, so I let it go.

Last August I was working in Rome while the rest of my family was on vacation. On one slow news day I wandered across the Tiber River over to the charming old Trastevere neighborhood filled with tiny cobblestone streets, and typical Roman trattorie Restaurants. In the middle of the neighborhood is the lovely Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. To the side of the piazza stands one of my favorite churches in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

I slipped through the door to get a glimpse of the spectacular mosaics and for a little relief from the stifling August heat. Inside, there was a funeral underway. I sat down in a pew at the back as a middle-aged man made his way up to the lectern. With a tremendous sigh he put a couple sheets of paper down in front of him, adjusted the microphone and said, roughly from my memory: “Melanzane parmigiane, Ravioli con ricotta, stracchino e gorgonzola, Fiori di zucca ripieni di tagliolini al limone, these are just a few of the divine dishes mother prepared for us. These are the specialties into which she poured her love into and served to us. And now she is gone.” I gasped. Food. Love. Loss. It was devastating. I looked around at all the people dressed in black gently wiping away the tears with kleenexes. And then it came over me, the SAD WAVE. I felt it starting in my stomach working its way up to get a grip on my heart and into my brain. Just before the tears could come sliding down my cheeks, I jumped up and left the church. The August heat in the piazza was fierce, but it brought me back to my senses. “Trisha, you were about to start crying over the lost chance to eat that kind lady’s melanzane parmigiane,” I thought to myself, “forget journalism, you should get a job as a prefica”

And if one funeral isn’t enough for you, in Italy you can do it all over again every year!   Here there is the tradition of the ‘messa di suffraggio’, a special mass to honor a dead person on the anniversary of his or her death. Italians usually have a messa di suffraggio every year for their parents. I was amused by the case of the 68-year-old boss of my friend Gianluca. He is a powerful man who is friends with Henry Kissinger and Shimon Peres, and even knew Mao Tse-tung. His mother died over 20 years ago but every year on the anniversary of her death, he has a mass held in her honor. He has little pictures of her—as a little old lady—printed out on cards and handed out to all those who attend the mass. Apparently it is a must-do event for the rich and powerful in Rome who dress in black and cling to their cards as they honor this mamma, long dead, whom most of them never knew. I must remind my son to do that before I croak, and I am going to make sure that I have lined up some gorgeous picture of myself for him to hand out!

15 thoughts on “Dressed in Black”

  1. . . bit different from the village funerals here in Turkey. Here it’s all very matter-of-fact and normal; no coffin except to carry the lych, the hearse is usually a tractor and trailer and the whole village turns out to sit with the family and to see you off this mortal coil. I like that!

    1. Wow, fascinating. Got to love the tractor-trailer hearse. I forgot to mention that Italians, and especially Neapolitans, are very superstitious, and among the many superstitions I have discovered is that it brings bad luck to look into the back of a hearse. So at funerals the coffin is brought out of the church and everyone is sobbing and carrying on while accompanying the coffin to the hearse while trying not to look into the back of the hearse. Leads to some strange neck-twisting acrobatics!

  2. One thing that often comes up in conversations between my Italian husband and I is the huge difference in funeral traditions. At his Nonna’s funeral when we were still dating the priest came along the family line, got to me and said “And who are you?” I replied “I’m Lisa” I had no idea and had never seen a dead person let alone someone I had known and loved.

    When my brother died last year suddenly at home aged 50 I flew down and was there when the funeral home came to get him the next day. I am so glad I had all those years of Italian funerals, I stayed with my brother until he left the house and was able to help his closest friend come and see him. Most of our Aussie family and friends commented on how “weird” it must have been to have Brad there in the house, for me it was the most natural thing in the world and I’m glad I got the chance to say goodbye.

    My very Italian mother in law has since meeting me and attending our sons funeral decided she and my father in law want to be cremated which causes a huge flap on the Italian side of the family every time she says it. I did not realize how vast the difference in our cultures would be, it shows up in so many aspects of our lives.
    ciao lisa

    1. Lisa, thank you for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like you and I have had some similar experiences being married to Italian men. You have a great capacity for accepting and understanding Italian traditions while I think I tend to be a bit more cynical. I always love hearing your thoughts and appreciate your contribution. Ciao, Trisha

  3. Sheryl Dominic

    Dear Trish, My first experience with this sort of funeral was in Portland Maine in a Greek Orthodox funeral service. A coworker of mine was killed in a car accident and at one point in the service, the weeping and wailing began. I assumed that the relatives of the deceased were responsible but found out later that paid mourners were present. I don’t know what they are called in Greek! Thanks for sharing the Italian vocabulary and customs. Sincerely, Sheryl

    1. Sheryl — That is fascinating, I never would have imagined such a thing in Portland, Maine. It’s amazing. I guess that is what is so special about the United States, all our diversity. I worked for one summer as a TV reporter at WCSH in Portland, Maine. I had a fabulous time covering the local news — lobster fisherman and rootbeer festivals — but I never ran into anything that was Greek Orthodox. Thanks for your comment, I appreciate. Best, Trisha

  4. At my mother’s very sudden and unexpected funeral I was overcome by grief and began weeping uncontrollably in the crypt. My aunt explained to everyone that my mom and I were at odds with each other and that was the cause of my over-zealous tears. That was not the case at all. I was suddenly and powerfully overcome by grief. I don’t think we Americans know how to deal with grief much. It makes us very uncomfortable. Even simple everyday, ordinary grief. Like the letting go of our children in each and every stage of their lives. We put on a good front and stuff our feelings. Then spend thousands of dollars on the therapists’ couch!

    1. Yes, you are right about that. Living in Italy, I’ve learned to let the tears flow and funerals and I have also learned to yell. My parents never, ever yelled. I think they had two tense arguments in front of their children the entire time we were growing up. Gustavo and I really let loose some times, which isn’t always very pretty, but at least we get it out.

  5. Thank you for your site! I’m writting a book on ‘Living until Dying’ the last chapter is on grief and I was writing on how ‘Wailing’ helps with the grief as it can be expressed and how in western culture we are taught to hold it in. I was lucky enought to go to a wailing funeral in Australia of a client that died. It was so sad and wonderful I cryed and cryed with 200 people I had never met.

    Blessing Lea

    1. Thank you for your comment Lea. It is true that it helps sometimes to let it all out. Nothing like a good cry or a good wail. I find that I also benefit from a “Celebration of Life” style funeral where one can reminisce about a person’s life sometimes crying, sometimes laughing. I am thinking of doing another post on death and funerals in Italy. A colleague of mine from Puglia whose mother recently died, regaled me with fascinating tales of all the family arguments surrounding the death and funeral. One that stuck in my mind was an intense argument he had with his aunt over what his dead mother would wear for the open-casket funeral. Apparently my colleague chose a black wool dress for his mother that the aunt thought was too hot for summer.

  6. Wow!! I searched “Mourning in Italian culture”… and landed here!! What an article, amazing, now I understand my depth of mourning…Excellent description of the pain!! <3 :)

  7. I’m Italian American and I know the whole rigamarole well. The funeral that stands out the most is my Aunt Elizabeth, who died quite unexpectedly at 30. She was laid out in her flight attendant’s uniform, barefoot, in a white casket lined with cream satin that must have cost a fortune.

    I agree that Americans don’t generally do grief well. I like the Italian American way of an understood ritual that can connect mourners. The fancy casket and sea of flowers and candles can be a bit excessive but it’s an attempt to dignify the deceased that I find noble. And as for the weeping, it’s always there but in the case of Elizabeth’s funeral it was turned up to 11 since she was so young and beloved and the death so sudden. Everyone, including her tough and old fashioned dad and brothers, was weeping and wailing openly and offering words of comfort and advice, confronting death head on. A funeral for the living and the dead.

    1. Wow, that certainly does sound like a very dramatic and emotional funeral. I am sure I would have been sobbing my head off too! Interesting the bare feet. Why was that? John Paul II was laid out in his red papal shoes.

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