A Wish Fulfilled: Saying Goodbye To Italy & Black-Edged Mourning Envelopes


“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.

climbing through the wooded, hillside terrain,
up, up, up into the tallest mountain of Italy, Mount Cimone . . .
with verdant pastures in the foothills on a cloudy, drizzly day
past estates and tall, spiraling cypress trees . . .
higher and higher . . .
becoming ever more mountainous . . .
with nothing flat anymore, only slippery slopes . . .
to the point of only rock . . .
and we arrive to the village of Magrignana where the deceased are buried . . .
shielded with stone walls and iron gates . . .
and small alcoves dedicated to the Blessed Virgin . . .
before entering the final resting place of many of my relatives . . .
with beautiful iron artwork to commemorate those that have left us.
A tiny, yet lovely stone chapel sits on the mountainside . . .
inviting one to peak inside a white iron gate door . . .
to view an altar with pristine, crisp white linens to offer homage and a prayer.
But a life worth living is a life deserving of celebration,
with food that is lovingly prepared and shared . . .
so we end our visit to the mountains
in my father’s family ristorante in the nearby town of Renno . . .
where my paternal cousin greets us with delicious espressos, latte’s and Italian pastries . . .
before the lunch time opening . . .
and embracing family that is rarely seen . . .
and we read about our food and restaurant business heritage that began in Italy . . .

 and as my father stands outside the old stone walls of this little family restaurant, he gives his final earthly good byes . . .

to his family in Modena.
Dad, your parents climbed those unfriendly,
yet beautiful mountains of Northern Italy
and you climbed the mountains of life within America.
You reached every one of your goals
and your legacy on this earth has left all of us inspired.
Thank you for an amazing trip to Italy, Dad . . . you made it again!
Thank you for letting me be your ‘taxi-driver’ and to push your wheelchair along the ancient cobblestones.
I will remember it forever.
May you rest in peace in your ultimate home with our Lord!
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  1. Anonymous says

    What a glorious article. So glad you got to make that trip and so thankful that you are sharing it with us. God Bless You and Yours during this time of sadness and of celebration. Luv ya Roz. Cj

  2. says

    Oh, Roz. My sincerest sympathies for you and your family. I know what its like having lost Mum last year and my Dad over 20 years ago now. What a wonderful time you had with your Dad. My Mum and Dad are both of European descent and they celebrate death as well as life and I think that has made my loss a little easier to bear. Best wishes to you Roz.

    Anne xx

  3. says

    As I have mentioned before Roz a blogging absence is understandable since you have been exactly where you needed to be and that is with your family. I am so happy you spent time in Italy with your parents. You have all those dear memories to cherish for a lifetime. I was in Italy for All Saints Day.

  4. says

    A beautiful tribute . . .what beautiful traditions you shared here with us. Such beautiful pictures you’ve shared, too. Your parents are lucky to have you, especially the you who is helping to celebrate beautiful traditions, a beautiful family. Accept my sincerest sympathies, Roz.

  5. says

    oh my sweet friend. I am so sorry for your loss. My heart and prayers are with you and your family but I have joy knowing that your father lived a wonderful life and left behind such an amazing legacy in you! You are full of warmth and love and I know he was proud of you. I am glad you got to share in the history of your family and draw even closer to them during this time. I am here for you if you ever need to talk! Much love


  6. says

    Dear Roz,
    My dad passed away a long time of go, it’s never easy to say good-bye to a parent. So wonderful that your dad lived such a full long life. I think the Italian traditions of really embracing death as part of life has helped me deal with death too. When I was a kid we often visited the cemetery after church to say hello to relatives. My mom would tell me stories and so these relatives were never lost. Take care of yourself.

  7. says

    Roz: This is a beautiful tribute to the life of your father. How wonderful that you so recently spent such meaningful time with him. I remember as a child being told by a dear neighbor of letters edged in black. She had a black-marbled notebook with song lyrics written in by hand. That particular one fascinated me. The words were something like “I saw the postman coming up the pathway………he handed me a letter edged in black”. Condolences to you and your family.


  8. says

    What a beautiful post about your father, your family, and the traditions. Thanks for sharing this personal journey with us. I found it fascinating, touching, and inspiring. There is so much beauty in the traditions your family has upheld. I am so sorry for your loss and the circle of life is a tough one to reconcile, at least for me anyway. My thoughts are with you and I send you lots of love & hugs. It’s never easy saying good-bye (for now). It sounds like he had a wonderful life, full of love. Be well.

  9. says

    i know Lutherans (also probably Catholics) in the U.S. celebrate All Saints Day each year, the first Sunday in November, to remember all the members of the church that died that year. A very high holy day in the Lutheran church.

  10. says

    With tears in my eyes I extend my condolences to you and your family, Roz.

    What a precious treasure of a memory to have had time with your father in Italy =)

    May the Angels comfort and bring ease to you and yours.

  11. says

    Roz ~ what a beautiful tribute to your dad. I have spent a lot of time in Tuscany, and have many times heard the ‘sad bells’. They ring throughout the village when someone dies. Such a tribute, and an announcement to everyone within hearing distance.
    I hope that you can find comfort in your precious memories.
    ~ Sandi

  12. says

    Oh Roz – I am just now reading this very moving post and am so sorry that you lost your dad. How lucky you were to have made that trip with him this fall. You will have that memory for the rest of your life, even if he isn’t with you on Earth. I remember receiving one of those black edged cards decades ago when one of my uncles in Italy died. I had never seen one before but I immediately surmised it was something solemn and sad. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  13. says

    I am so glad you shared this with me. I lost my dad last year after a long illness. It is so wonderful that you have all those memories of your dad also. I still miss him and always will, but I have very fond memories that make me happy and put me at peace. I someday wish the samething for you.

  14. says

    What a beautiful, touching entry this is. My most heartfelt condolences to you on the loss of your precious father. I hope your lovely memories of him will be a comfort to you always. Best regards.

  15. says

    What a beautiful, touching tribute to your dear father. He was truly an icon in our small town…and I love how you described his ascent to success as climbing a mountain. And thank you for sharing more of your trip to Italy…I love how the Italians honor the dead throughout the year. Wishing you peace as you mourn your dad… xo

  16. says

    What a wonderful post to celebrate your father’s life – he certainly seems to have had a full life. How amazing that you were able to ‘take him home’ for one final visit to Italy.

    I know what you mean about the respect paid to the dead in Italy. More than a few times we have been in small villages when there is a funeral. It is so touching the ay the entire town comes out and walks behind the coffin as it is taken to be laid to rest.

  17. says

    Oh Roz…I am so glad you were able to do this with your father…what wonderful memories and that the trip made him happy near the end of his time here. So importante that you could be there with him. Besides the black edged envelopes, which were also used in England, one of the really “special” things that I have noticed in Italy, are the “death notices” pasted on the walls of villages to announce the passing of a member of that village…what a great thing to honour the person who has passed. So different here in N. America. I lost my 91 year old mom in 2012 and it was the hardest and still is the hardest thing I have been confronted with…I miss her every day and have a lovely photo of her next to where I sleep…she spent a lot of time in my life watching me sleep I am sure….take care, I am thinking of you!
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