Last Saturday morning my boyfriend and I woke up to the news that his 96 year old grandmother had died. She had been bed-ridden for the last 10 years, his mother was a full time carer for her and she wasn’t all that lucid, so it goes without saying that it was one of those deaths that come with a sigh of relief. The amazing and fierce business woman that she had been, starting a company from scratch and making a success of it, had long gone, taken over and consumed by her old age.
Now, of course as the dutiful girlfriend that I am, I offered to come with my boyfriend to his parents’ house that day, in my innocent mind imagining an easy day with the family, eating some food, maybe a walk in the countryside, to then return to his house and end our day doing some DIY together, before going to a really cool birthday party we had been invited to that evening at Palazzo San Niccolò. How wrong I was.
We arrived at the house and a cheerful man came to say hello, we followed him upstairs and greeted my boyfriend’s dad, who looked sad, but ok. The cheerful man was the funeral director and they had just finished arranging the casket, that was in the bedroom. Of course I imagined this meant she would be taken away at this point, for the upcoming funeral this week. Again, how wrong I was. The open casket sat there, elevated at the foot of the bed, with a very elegant grandmother inside it. His family is very small, and so me, his mum and dad, and him, stood around the grandmother discussing the circumstances of her death. His dad then got out his phone to show us the funeral director’s WhatsApp profile picture: sexy girls carrying a coffin. The day promised to be interesting. A little while later, the local priest arrived to give the last rites. He was by all intents and purposes a carbon copy of an ex boyfriend, but not just any ex, the one just before this one, that I am friends with and is actually a really good guy, but still, did he have to literally turn up at this point? He was so much like him, that I now worried that I would have an uncontrollable fit of laugher, and my boyfriend asked if I knew of my ex’s religious life. All risk of laughter ended when the priest started talking about other priests in the area, explaining who may or may not be celebrating the funeral and he said « so and so is from Kenya, but he’s nice », and I thought wow, BUT he’s nice, wow. Anyway, long story short, it was a long and heavy day, spent mainly standing around a grandmother inside a coffin, no food, not even a glass of water was consumed by me. Needless to say, the nice DIY and party evening were out of the window. The funeral was arranged for Monday, now I had to prepare.
Preparing for an Italian funeral was something I knew I would have to do one day. I always knew that the longer I lived here, the more likely this would be, so I had an idea of what I might do. After how different things were on the day of the death, I was expecting something really out there, but it was actually not too far from my personal experiences. I have been to funerals in Brazil and the UK, none in France. So Sunday night I wrote to a lovely Italian acquaintance and asked for her advice. What do you wear at an Italian funeral, what are the customs at an Italian funeral, what flowers do I bring to an Italian funeral, where do I place them, are there any specific Italian funeral traditions? My friend was very thorough in reply, she even suggested how I did my hair (in a low ponytail), what colours to wear (not all black, but certainly some black and mostly dark), what flowers to buy (roses), what colour the flowers should be (pink or white) and no orchids. The funeral itself was very small, only the four of us, due to Covid restrictions. It was a really lovely ceremony, needless to say the funeral director who had the sexy girls on his phone was not the best at organising and carrying coffins, I swear they nearly dropped her twice, and grunted audibly when lowering her down for the mass. The funeral happened at the family’s local Catholic church, the family did not choose the music, they had no real preference, and so the priests chose. One of the songs they played had the same melody as the Hatikvah and I was absolutely blown away by this. I grew up in Rio next door to a Jewish school, so I practically know the words as every Friday they would play it on a loudspeaker and I would wake up to the Israeli National Anthem, a song I absolutely love.
After the service, we went to the cemetery together and the similarities kind of ended here. Instead of buying buried in the ground, the family has plots in the vertical part of the cemetery, it’s beautiful and very well kept, but basically we just stood around while the same funeral director tried to guide his staff to place this very heavy casket inside a hole in a wall. Then someone who works in the cemetery comes along and closes it tightly, as if you were worried a lion might escape, it was a brutal thing to watch. I could’t help but feel very sorry for his dad, watching his mum being put in that hole forever and looking at the empty box beneath it, presumably his own one day.
After she was buried we went on a tour of the graveyard with the family and saw all the other family members who are buried there, they have people from a good few generations back, and all the plots have photos on them, so you see your distant relatives, it’s so interesting. His mum takes meticulous care of all the family plots, and the flowers I took for the grandma, ended up on the great-grandfather’s grave, and they really looked beautiful on there. My boyfriend suggested I should be annoyed that his mum decided to not leave my flowers with his grandmother, but the grandmother was not there to appreciate any flowers and the only person who may get some pleasure from my gesture, the person who takes her time to tend to all these graves, did enjoy it. Mission accomplished.
Once we left the cemetery we all went for a coffee at the town centre. His dad bought me some local pastries and I was so touched that he took the time to do this on the day he buried his mum. Of course all these experiences are unique to this family and this particular Italian funeral, but as a guide what was useful for me to know beforehand was really what to wear, what to take and what to say, these should be pretty universal. So here we go:
What to wear to an Italian funeral
My good friend made me laugh when explaining that the all black look gives off an air of a Gucci salesperson, you should always break it with something, not colourful, but sober to complement the black.
She advised me to wear my hair in a ponytail, but since my boyfriend would probably think an alien had taken over my body if I had done so (I wear my hair down 99% of the time), I decided to just make sure it was freshly blow dried and neat.
What to take to an Italian funeral
Basically flowers, a warm seasonal bouquet of white or pink flowers. You don’t give them to anyone, but rather place them by the casket, or the funeral director will do it for you, they also ensure the flowers are taken to the graveyard afterwards.
What to say at an Italian funeral
In an informal setting you should say: « Condoglianze », condolences. If it’s a bit more formal say: « Le mie più sentite condoglianze » – My deepest sympathies.
What to expect at an Italian funeral
More likely than not, it will be a Catholic funeral, with a full mass, blessing of the casket, followed by a trip to the graveyard.
What to expect at the Italian cemetery
Expect the unexpected, go with it, try not to look shocked if people get put inside a wall forever.
Is there a wake after an Italian funeral?
In this case there was not, but it would be ok to go back to the house and have food together. In some communities it is still customary take food and drinks to families who have just suffered a loss, which can be shared after the funeral, as it usually takes place very soon after the passing, even the day after if possible. If you get invited, go if you’re comfortable. Or you might get lucky like me and get some delicious warm pastries as a kind gift.
Whatever your experience and trepidation remember that Italians are very generous and patient with those of us who don’t know their customs and as long as you are kind and polite, you are more than likely to be welcomed with open arms, and excused for any slips you might make in your new life in Italy. This is why a move to Italy, be it a move to Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples, wherever takes your fancy, is such a wonderful thing to do. Italians and their way of life more than make up for the bureaucratic hell you need to endure to make this dream a reality.