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.”
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!