Italians celebrate life with verve but how do they deal with death? Is it in the same practical, but lively manner? When I visited the cemetery in Belgirate, a small village on Lake Maggiore, I was very impressed. It was extremely well kept - the grass was carefully mown and there was no sign of a weed anywhere. Even more impressive were the graves which were cared for with great love. Most had framed photos of the deceased nearby and newly-placed flowers. What a contrast this was to the weed-ridden, forgotten graves of many Australian cemeteries! The dead are obviously well-remembered in Italy.
The cemeteries of Mediterranean towns are even better. As in Belgirate the dead are buried outside the town because of cemeteries being health risks. They often have wonderful views. Coffins are placed in niches of high walls, each with their own light and vase. Perhaps it is worth living in Italy just so one can be buried there!
Traditionally, when someone dies in a village in Italy he or she is kept in an open casket at home and friends and neighbours will visit and pay their respects. The family will often decorate the door of their house and put up notices to tell people about the death and the funeral. They have a full mass at the funeral service and neighbors and friends will follow the pallbearers to the cemetery in a procession while people watch to pay their respects.
In cities, people are not as closely intertwined so funerals may be a little different and death notices are put in the newspaper.
Cremation isn't popular in Italy because the Catholic Church favors burial. However, it was an ancient Roman custom and it was introduced again in the early 1800's under Napoleon for 'hygienic reasons'. Many people who didn't like the Catholic Church chose to be cremated. In 1917 the Catholic Church decided to deny those who were cremated a Catholic burial but changed its mind in 1963 as long as those who were cremated didn't do it because of opposition to the beliefs of the Church.
There are new prayers for cremation services. Catholics can also have their ashes scattered and a Catholic funeral as long as this isn't done because of any anti-Catholic beliefs, such as pantheism.
The Day of the Dead
Halloween appears to be slowly taking the place of this festival, sadly. On November 2nd Italians visit the graves of their relatives and friends with chrysanthemums and candles. Churches hold services for the dead. Children are given toys and presents by the 'muorti'.
Chrysanthemums are often given at funerals and in memory of the dead in Europe. When she was newly married Grace Kelly didn't realize this and put a vase of these flowers on a guest's bedside table. Prince Ranier was very upset and berated her. "Don't you know that these flowers symbolize death in Europe?" he said.
Traditionally Italians make Ossa de Mortu or the Bones of the Dead on this day. In spite of their rather unappetizing name, they are cookies!
Funerals are sombre occasions in Italy. Most people still dress in black or dark colors and wakes are not jovial events as they sometimes are in Ireland and Australia. Widows used to dress in black for a year. Even thirty-five years ago when I first visited Italy I was shocked to see so many women dressed in black.
Death is treated in a practical, realistic and dignified way by the Italians. The taboos surrounding this subject in many Protestant countries are not helpful and difficult to understand at times. Perhaps we should learn from Italian traditions.
We have an ongoing discussion on How Italians treat death on our forum, so you can ask your questions there.
By Lisa-Anne Sanderson