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What to Expect at Italian Funerals in ItalyDiscover the differences between how Italians mourn and how Italian-Americans say good-bye to loved ones despite their shared religion Catholicism
People are people, so you are probably thinking that mourning is universal. But death is the final rite of passage we experience, and each culture, not to mention religion, uniquely recognizes the end of someone's life. The location of your final departure has a lot to do with how your life is celebrated. I learned this when I went to a funeral in Italy for the first time in 2006. It was a real eye opener.
Being an Italian-American and a Catholic, I assumed the funeral traditions would be similar to the ones I had experienced back home. Boy, was I wrong! For starters, I expected there to be a wake, one or two days, when you visit a funeral home to share your condolences with the surviving family and say good-bye to the corpse. At our wakes in the United States, the corpse is usually right in the room with you, open casket and all.
Funeral homes don't exist in Italy or at least not on the small island of Ischia, which is the home of my ancestors and husband. Some old-school families, prop up their loved one in their bed at home and welcome family and friends to the house on the day the person died. Everyone knows death has visited a family because they close their shutters tight even during the daytime before and after the siesta.
Those family and friends who come to the family's home usually bring food because the immediate family of the departed is not expected to cook, and the living still have to eat. A few might offer flowers or Mass cards, but it is not a given as it is in the United States. Whenever a relative of mine died in America, we would send an elaborate floral display, a Mass card, or both, depending on the relationship. In Italy, not even the spouses, children, or grandchildren of the deceased provide flowers.
On the morning of a Catholic funeral in the United States, the family often first gathers at the funeral home before heading to church with everyone driving in a procession, sometimes guided by police (even if you weren't famous). At the church, a priest leads a Mass and someone might share a eulogy. This is the point of the funeral, in which Italians and Italian-Americans do pretty much the same thing.
In both places, the casket is closed at this point. But pallbearers carry the coffin into the Mass in the United States and in Italy, the coffin is often already at the center of the church or on the altar. Another stark difference is what the mourners are wearing. Sure, there are some older women in their eighties and nineties, who still wear those black suits and veils and they live out the rest of their days in them fulfilling every stereotype Americans have ever seen of Italian women of a certain age.
For the most part, however, people don't pay much attention to what they wear at the funeral. I was concerned at the first Italian funeral to which I went because I was wearing white pants with a black sweater. I had not planned on attending when I packed my bags at the start of the summer. I wore heels despite having to go to the funeral as a passenger on a motor scooter. When I arrived, I felt overdressed. The family members of the deceased were wearing T-shirts and jeans. Some even wore ripped jean shorts. I was shocked. Italy is the land of bella figura and high fashion. Yet, when saying good-bye to the dead, no one really cared what they wore. And my concerns about my own attire quickly faded.
The other notable difference between Catholic funerals in the United States and Italy is what happens afterward. In the U.S., the family of the departed invites everyone for refreshments either at someone's home or a restaurant after the funeral. In Italy, this just doesn't happen. Some of the closest relatives might choose to stay with the spouse of the departed, for example. But it's not a formal gathering and the other mourners are not included. Everyone simply goes home.
For a while, I wondered what this more toned down ritual said about Italians. I was almost offended at the fact that people dressed so casually and the funeral itself was nothing more than a Mass. How do you say good-bye? How could you feel closure? But then my husband – a native Italian – expressed his dislike of the Italian-American ritual. He said, "It lasts so many days, how can anyone move on with their lives? It's torture for the living to have to relive the death of their loved one everyday for a week." More practical observations surfaced. Italian-American funerals cost almost as much as Italian-American weddings, which is insane. While still somewhat expensive – the coffin, church service, and final resting place come at a price – the Italian funerals were more economical.
In the end, neither is better than the other. They're just different, and their differences are based on the needs and circumstances of their people. One thing that remains universal is the reverence for the dead that both cultures share. Italians and Italian Americans alike reminisce about their angels in Heaven, visit the mausoleum or cemetery regularly (with flowers in hand), and say “buon animo(a),” which means “good soul” before repeating the name of the dead. And the dramatic crying and offering to join the departed in the coffin – on the part of the women mostly – also exists in both worlds. Gina Lollabrigida, that makes for a more interesting funeral!
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