“From dust we come, from dust we shall return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20)
Even though life is beautiful (la vita che bella) it is also brief and precious. I have been away from my blog and all of my friends in the blogging community for almost one month due to a different and more important life focus: the joy and the sorrow of celebrating a life in my family . . . the life of my father, who passed away one week ago today.
My father lived a full life of 92 years and influenced me in many things, including living life with gusto and with an appreciation for God, family, friends, work and food.
Nearly one month before my father’s last weeks on earth, my mother asked me: “Have you ever seen an ‘envelope with black edges’ that announces the death of someone in Italy?”. Upon our return from our trip to Italy in mid-October, my father’s health began to severely decline and my mother began to speak to me about the rituals of death.
As an Italian-American, born and raised in the States, my answer was an obvious “No”. This was not and is not an American custom for funerals and the announcement of one’s passing. My mother proceeded to go to her bedroom and quietly returned with a box of funeral mourning cards that are delivered through the mail and/or presented to family and friends upon the visitation and funerals of their deceased loved ones. Inside the box, my mother tenderly presented an envelope sent to her from Italy years ago . . . an envelope with black edges . . . within it was enclosed a ‘mourning announcement’ of the passing of one of our relatives in Italy.
As a crazed, searching-for-answers academic, as always I was curious about this now non-practiced European (not just Italian) tradition. I felt compelled to research these mysterious, dark, black-edged envelopes considering the state of my father’s diminishing health.
I suppose that this was one of my ways of accepting the inevitable . . . death . . . of a parent.
Unlike in the States, death and funeral proceedings are a BIG DEAL in Italy. Those who have passed are continually honored and remembered, not just buried in the ground to visit only once a year on a national holiday.
When we first stepped into my relatives’ home in Modena, Italy this past October, after receiving food (freshly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, Parmiggiano-Regiano, wine, and balsamico vinegar), we were immediately presented with photo albums full of death announcements and memorial cards, including the photos of the funerals of deceased relatives . . . and at the same time as birth announcements and life-time photos of family.
As a woman raised in American culture, I thought this to be very odd indeed.
But death is a revered part of life in Italy. Funerals are very important life events! The dead are remembered and honored throughout the year, not just on Memorial Day.
In Mexico, the “Day of the Dead” is celebrated with feasts to honor loved ones who have passed away. The Japanese honor their deceased in “Obon Week”. And in Italy, the Feast of “All Souls Day” is celebrated immediately at the beginning of November, just after Americans celebrate the very commercialized day of Halloween.
When my parents and I visited Italy, our relatives not only showed the funeral cards of ‘mourning’, but also took us to the village cemetery to visit the graves of my relatives. I also visited the grave of Luciano Pavarotti in Modena; interestingly, a common thing for visitors to do when in Modena . . . just 10 minutes from my relatives’ home. In Italy space is limited, so one is buried vertically in a mausoleum. It felt strange to me, but I understand why . . . Italy is a small country (about the size of Florida, USA or a bit larger). We in the States take for granted the size of our country, until we visit a land of such smaller size, such as Italy or England!
On a very humble plastic table cloth in the dining area, my cousins display the mourning cards of those who have passed away. The deceased are never forgotten and discussed just as joyfully as are the newborn babies when they enter our lives. Oh, the cycle of life!
The next day my cousin Enrico kindly gave me a break from the insane driving of Italy and drove my parents and me up into the northern mountains of Emilia-Romagna where my relatives were born.
and as my father stands outside the old stone walls of this little family restaurant, he gives his final earthly good byes . . .