We shift our eyes away and sidle toward another subject if we can. But I believe most of us are curious about our inevitable demise, (of course we are curious about our own, but who can we ask?) and it is particularly enlightening to observe how other cultures deal with IT, when the time comes. Our customs, naturally, say a lot about us.
“Rusty Gate” oil on canvas, 40 x 38 inches
My mother passed away recently, and my father followed her by only a few months. We lost my husband’s parents, my brother-in-law, a couple of friends, all in the past few years. So I have had occasion to experience the contrasts in how we treat our dead, those mysterious and terrifying leftovers of the people we once loved.
My mother was efficient in her passing, not one to needlessly draw out her time in the spotlight. After all, she wasn’t discussing politics. We called the “funeral home,” that most uncomfortable term, and a soulful duo appeared, he tall and she short, demure and helpful ravens in swooping black coats. Disguised in a black zippered bag, she was rolled away, negotiating the doorways on her last exit from her home. Since my mother’s specific request was not to have any viewings, a practice she considered crass and an indulgence of base human curiosities, we never saw her again. Our dealings with the funeral folks were short and sweet, just a subdued shuffle around the casket car lot, the exchange of documents and signing of checks, and off she went on her final flight to her resting place in Oklahoma. She told me that the term “at rest” would soon mean much more to us as we put on years. She was tired. As to the preparations carried out in the facility, the less known the better. I think we all understand that the ultimate, “prepared” version of our deceased relatives is nothing if not husk-like. When my father followed her, the mechanics were the same, although his hospital death allowed for even less family participation, making the “undertakings” even more obscure. He would have appreciated the pun.
Here in Basilicata things are different. There is no “funeral home.” Among the first to know will be the local printers shop, who will prepare the black and white manifesti* which will go up around town before the deceased begins his or her preparations for departure. Provisions for the body’s burial are entirely the responsibility of the closest relatives, and home is where the funeral starts. Those preparations usually involve washing and dressing, maybe shaving, combing the hair and placing the hands upon some treasured item. There is no embalming. The household where the deceased lived prepares for visitors by placing the body in a central position, usually on the dining room table, and chairs are circled around the periphery of the room in anticipation of a day of visitations by friends and relatives. We arrive, are greeted, a hug or a nod, a few words, and we find a chair and sit down. Sometimes a daughter, a brother will be carrying on a long conversation with the deceased, softly murmuring, chuckling, or more rarely, tearfully grasping at clothing or swaying from side to side. There is hushed conversation between visitors, mostly remembrances of episodes in the life of the departed, but sometimes wholly unrelated to the matter at hand. “Remember when he fell out of that tree stealing figs?” “What did you buy to cook for lunch today?” “Did you hear about Pinuccio who is still in jail?” Each visitor is free to stay as long as he needs to, or wants to, or, in my case, as long as I can stand it. It is distressing for a “sanitized” American to participate somehow. I admire the customs immensely, but intellectually. I am uncomfortable. Until recently, there were places where a family could hire one or more women, the “prefiche,” who would carry on lamentations for a fee. These “chiangenn”** have often made their appearance in literature, understandably: they are equally fascinating and horrifying.
In a small municipality, the funeral procession is on foot from the home to the camposanto.*** Visitors to Italy may note that the most attractive area of a little town is often the cemetery, clipped and polished and centrally-planned. Family chapels are complete, and the larger areas of communal use are tastefully decorated with flowers on saints days and birthdays. What a contrast to the rusty rebar and cement which festoon the town’s buildings, adding subtle anguish to our streets, unpainted stucco revealing that a dwelling for the living is of secondary importance after all. Larger cities often have towering cement cell blocks of tombs, accessible from indoors, the crusty concrete bleeding white lime deposits, fading pictures of loved ones. Anemic electric candles flicker in the gloom. These are not peaceful places for contemplation, and I am reminded of our “self storage” lockers for our overflows of junk… “Self-storage” indeed!
We are used to saying our final goodbyes and leaving our loved ones to their final rest, in peace. Things are different in Italy, but more on that in part two.
** lamenters, (in local dialect)