Tag Archive | "Italian burial customs"

Jumping into the Hole

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On a bleak, 3-degree New York winter’s day several weeks ago, I buried a relative by marriage.  As my husband was a pallbearer, I drove to the cemetery with my brother-in-law, who muttered repeatedly under his breath, like a mantra, “Please, let them not take us up right up to the hole.”   My own family buries our dead in a more genteel manner, so I was a bit taken aback by this never-before-experienced prospect, particularly after my brother-in-law added, “Do you know how many funerals I’ve attended where those left behind have tried to actually jump into the hole?”

While this was an image I could have done without, I still wasn’t getting the “hole” picture until we trudged over the half-sodden, half-frozen ground, right up to the grave site: that inescapable six-foot hole cut into the earth.  One of other pallbearers slipped over the unforgiving ground and nearly slid into that hole.  And with the earth so soggy, I too nearly took a header into the grave as I leaned in to place a rose upon the coffin in a final goodbye.  Afterward, my brother-in-law confessed, “Do you know how relieved am I that nobody tried to jump into the hole after him?”

The man we buried has quit this Earth, but his was a wake and funeral will live with me forever; I have never before stared down into a grave awaiting its booty.  Along with thoughts of how brief life is in this plane, my brother-in-law’s words haunt me still.   I wondered who might want to jump into my grave, when the time comes.  Whoever it is (and I have a pretty good idea), they will be robbed of that “privilege.”

The Catholic Church forbade cremation for centuries, but since I made a conscious decision to leave the Church years ago, I will not be facing the flames of hell for breaking with dogma that has since been altered.  Rather, the body I will no longer need will be licked clean by a manmade fire.  Half of my ashes will be sprinkled here in the States, and half overseas, in locations known only to my nearest and dearest.   In making this decision, and in laying plans for my own funeral, I realize that I have spared my loved ones the sturm and drang, the emotional and fiscal costs associated with a more traditional send-off.

My goodbye will not be what constitutes, in my eyes, a rather barbaric custom.  It will not leave people asking themselves that which I’d asked myself of this aforementioned relative’s wake. “Why was he not more considerate of his family and friends?” I wondered. “He knew he was dying.  Why did he put us through all of this: the trip upstate, the money laid out for three nights in a hotel, the special funeral attire (I never wear black), the three squares a day in local restaurants, the pricey flower arrangements?  Why did he do this to us?  Did it bring him some comfort to force us to mourn him in this archaic and painful manner?”

And then it hit me.  He may have done nothing to us.  It may have been his family wanting the old-fashioned Italian wake and burial, as the deceased was of Polish descent and a damned brave man to have married into a family comprised almost solely of Italian-Americans!

And then I wondered why on God’s green Earth would his family have wanted to put themselves through such an ordeal?

The man who had passed on had suffered from a form of cancer once remitted and then returned to attack other parts of his body.  In the casket, he looked nothing like the vivacious, wisecracking, generous soul he had been in life.  In fact, his gray, sunken face told of his suffering.  His wife was well prepared for his passing, or so she had led us to believe.  Why did she wish to stare at his shell in that box for hours on end, over two days plus another few hours on the morning that we put him in the ground?  Was this respectful to him?  Although my family takes care of these things in a much quieter and quicker manner (and yes, I am an Italian-American), I thought that perhaps this was the widow’s way of jumping into the hole after her husband; maybe it was her way of grieving.  

As I sat at length in that too-warm room redolent of the sickly odor of lilies, I realized that perhaps the mourners were not weeping for the deceased; they were crying for themselves.

Their lives would be diminished by the passing of this great big bear of a man who always had a joke on his tongue, enjoyed spectator sports vociferously, and whose front door and refrigerator were always open to guests, both invited and unexpected.  They would miss his heated political arguments that usually ended in him poking fun at the strunzes in our nation’s capitol.  They would miss making fun of him as he turned up his nose, as he had for decades, at the fried calamari and other cultural delicacies that most of the rest of us ate with gusto.  And no doubt, those grieving wondered who would take care of them.

The dead man had left his wife well cared-for financially, and they owned a large piece of property with a house to match.  Who, now, would mow that property, seed it, and weed it?  Who would chase the deer away from the roses and fruit trees in the summer?  Who would chop the firewood and rake the leaves in the autumn and remove the snow in the winter?  Who would keep the widow company in a house far too large for a sole occupant whose mind and heart would turn again and again to the empty chair, the empty place in the bed beside her?  

Perhaps she had restrained herself from actually jumping into the hole by going through a long, drawn-out, emotionally exhausting process of the two-to-three-day wake and funeral still favored by my elders.

Me, I won’t be doing this to my loved ones when my times comes.  Years ago, I left a living will for my best friend to carry out, and it will not be a lavish, somber affair in the old Italian tradition.  After doling out all of my still-functional organs to those on waiting lists who truly need them, what is left of my body will take its final journey down that burning log flume.  There will be nothing to bury and no waiting hole in the ground to haunt my loved ones with its starkness and finality.  There will be no headstone, for I will not be in the ground.  My spirit will be with the Being who created me, in whom I have the utmost of faith. 

I hope no one wears black to my send-off, for black is the absence of all light.  Mine will be a fine Irish wake, replete with “craick” (story telling and jokes), “hoisting a jar or two” (enjoying alcoholic beverages) in my honor, and playing specific selections of music that have lifted my heart throughout my life on this planet.

There are those who hope that their spouses, family, and friends will shed copious tears upon their passing.  I am not one of those people.  If my loved ones weep, I hope they do so in private, for I want no sad faces, and misery loves company.  Oh, they will mourn because the rock of the family has passed; they’ll wonder who will take care of them.  But their lives will go on until they, too, are called Home.

Most of all, I hope that those who truly knew me enjoy the stories of how I lived my life rather than how I died.  And I hope that they tell them often as they remember me, until we meet again in the Light of the Lord. 

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