Thursday, March 31, 2011

Funeral Chat

Today was my little friend's memorial Mass.   I wish the skies would have been more considerate, but at least at the time of the Mass, it was just gray and not raining.  Rebecca met me at church.  We decided she would go to school late, following the Mass.  I went to work very early, left for a few hours for the Mass, and returned after dropping Becca at her school.  On the short drive over, she said to me: " You do want your funeral Mass in Latin, don't you?"

I laughed at first.  I have the music picked out for my funeral and some strict instructions about no eulogies, etc. but I honestly hadn't given much thought to the subject.  I know I'd like the priest to wear black vestments, and I clearly do not want any assumptions that I am in Heaven.  A funeral Mass is offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased.  If someone feels compelled to give a eulogy or a stand-up performance about what they suppose I'm doing in Heaven, they can save it for the luncheon afterward.  But would I want my Mass to be a requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form?

I told my daughter I'd have to think about it.  Then I asked the question no sane parent would ever ask their own child.  "God forbid, if you go before me, what kind of Mass do you want Rebecca?"

Without even a second's pause, she said she would like her funeral Mass to be in the Extraordinary Form.  "It might be the only time any of our family ever goes to a Latin Mass", she told me, ever the considerate one. Little does she know.   I come from a large Italian family known for getting demonstratively emotional at funerals.  I will never forget my paternal grandfather's funeral as long as I live.

First, the "wake" was held over not one but two nights.  The first night was for family only, the second was open to everyone.  My grandmother and all my aunts wore black.  On the evening before the wakes began, we visited my grandmother at the home she had shared with Poppy, and every new visitor was greeted by much wailing and shrieking, most of it in Italian.  Then after each outburst, she would return to praying the very large Rosary she had in her lap, until the next unsuspecting person arrived to "pay their respects."

After the night of the first viewing, one of my aunts decided a funeral home was no place for grandchildren to spend an entire evening, so she generously agreed to take all of us back to my grandparents' house until the wake had concluded.  She entertained us with stories and when the other adults arrived, my uncle Sonny took over.  He told us about the days when a wake was held with the deceased person in the house, which is where the ritual took its name "wake" because someone was expected to stay up all night with the body, another sign of respect. The men told a lot of jokes, drank and laughed.  What was so funny, their father just died?  Still, it was comforting in a way to see them give the morbidity a break.   But the real spectacle would begin on the day of the funeral.

I had never been to a burial before. I was barely ten years old at the time.  I was already freaked out about seeing my grandfather's lifeless cold body heavily made up by the undertaker lying in the casket.  There was much wailing and screaming when the undertaker tried to close the coffin before the body was transported to church for the Mass. Before he could close the lid, one of my cousins tucked a bottle of booze in the casket with my grandfather.  Not sure what that was about, but it was a strange thing to do.  At the cemetery,   just like the famous scene in The Godfather, each person laid a flower on the casket.  Not my grandmother.  She tried to throw herself on top of it, barely restrained by the family.  My theatrical aunt wailed loudly as the men tried to drag my grandmother from the grave.  I was mortified and perplexed.  My grandparents fought like cats and dogs.  I could scarcely remember a kind word being exchanged between them, and here she was, trying to jump in the grave with him.  I had never seen anything so undignified, until we were compelled to take her to the cemetery a few weeks later.  This time, she kicked the dirt around the grave.  Having visited my maternal grandfather's grave every Good Friday, I was again mortified.  We always took care not to step on any of the plots or stones, and here she was, in her black dress, kicking wildly at the dirt.  It was enough to make me never want to go to another funeral in my life.

While there have been a few deaths since then, no one has ever behaved quite like that again.  Still, my family has a lot to learn about funeral decorum.  One cousin talked throughout the entire Mass for my paternal grandmother.  Another decided that he should be the one to give the eulogy, even though my grandmother never liked him and told everyone it took years off her life when he married my cousin. At my maternal grandmother's viewing, my mother walked in, took one look at her beloved mother in the casket, and suffered a serious heart attack.  I thought I was going to have to bury both of them in the same week.

I'm very glad my little friend was given a reverent and dignified send-off today.  The priest gave a simple but touching homily about how, when she was a baby, her godparents brought her to the Easter candle to be baptised and today, her remains were once again brought to that candle so her relatives and friends could ask God to bring her soul to eternal rest.  It was an entirely appropriate funeral Mass, which is possible regardless of which form in which it is celebrated.

I still have to give Rebecca's question a bit more thought.


  1. Yep, that's a typical old fashion Italian funeral, hysterics, fighting and We as children were never taken to wakes. Frankly I hate the whole open casket thing. I never go up to the body. Only for my father did I do that. But he was special obviously. I don't mind having an open casket about per se but it just feels morbid to go up to the body and kneel in front of it.

  2. Manny, I KNEW you could relate lol!

  3. Wow. Its a wonder you have ever gone to another funeral in your life!

    Sorry that you had to attend such a sad one today.

  4. Wow, Joyce! My MIL is from that generation and often tells us stories of the house-wakes. She had a few Italian lady melt downs when Bob's brother passed last year,but since she was the only one doing it, it sort of was quelled. I am someone who gets REALLY uncomfortable around displays of unrestrained emotion. But we all made it through. :)
    I think it is really touching that you and Rebecca can have that talk. :)

  5. Gosh, this post has given me a lot to think about! I worry i might react like your mother, if I see my mother in that way, if she goes first. Also my father, the same, infact anyone of my family. I have had a lot of friends die in the last few years and almost retreat from thinking about death these days. I met a new friend last year and they were diagnosed with terminal cancer. I have to be careful not to become superstitious and withdraw from meeting people altogether.
    I need to hand over these fears to Jesus.

    Your story of your relatives sounded good to me, real.
    I like real people, not affected ones, even your grandmother kicking the soil, that represented her 'no' to death. Death was never part of the creator's plan, she was right to kick the soil. Jesus kicked death into touch, after all?
    I am glad your friend's funeral went off OK. I can still picture you in the hospital room with her last week, looking out of the window remembering the childhood days. You will have been a godly support to the family during this time, I am sure. Your words helped me last week, but that's another story. God bless.

  6. Thanks, Ros, you have helped me give the actions of my grandmother, though strange at the time, a different perspective, and thank you for your kind words about my post being helpful to you. That's the point, isn't it?
    God Bless you

  7. A couple of years ago, I drove into the small town nearby to pick up something from the hardware store.
    It was during the town's annual carnival, and traffic was unusually busy, so I was happy to see a break in the action and turned onto Main Street.
    I quickly discovered that I was in the middle of a funeral cortege. This wouldn't have been quite so awkward except for the fact that I was driving my old pick-up, and both of my large dogs had their heads stuck out of the window, the very picture of joyful effervescence.
    I looked frantically for a good place to pull off, but the carnival traffic made it impossible to do so. We drove at a snail's pace for a couple of the longest miles of my life until we finally reached the cemetery.


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