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Death Italian Style


The Real Story

Of course, we all know there is no such thing as a "real" story. We all have our own way of "seeing" things. This is my way of decoding that which happens around me as I, like everyone else, move through time in the company of this one and that...in one location or another.
Via Leonardo Da Vinci; seventh floor; family residence in "Sunny Naples" for almost forty years. Lately, there's been a major shift –the second one to occur after a twenty five-year interval since the death of the Patriarch. On his deathbed at the age of eighty, he had predicted that his wife, younger by a decade, would soon follow him.
She enjoyed life to the fullest until a few months prior to her demise at the age of 94. I suspect that she decided to leave when she did to pre-empt the witnessing of her daughter's slow and demeaning death by cancer...an unnatural obscenity she refused to endure. Smart lady.

I believe that people make these decisions when they can. When to grab life...when to let go. Turning points; defining moments; forks in the road. Whether we foster these "forks," and impose them upon ourselves...or suffer them happening to us, the result is the same. We grab or let go...affirm or deny ourselves...move on or get stuck... whatever befalls us is destiny; our contributions to the story are glimpsed every now and then in those awful moments of honesty and fatigue that, mercifully not too often, confront us. We prefer to depict ourselves as victims...being acted upon by forces outside of ourselves. Oedipus slept with his mother because he was destined to do so; not much he could do to avoid the ordained. We moderns have come to realize that the Gods reside within us, taking their cues from us as our genes interact with our environment.

Going "back home," usually puts one in this reflective frame of mind...that is...if one is not too busy regressing. When parents go and die on you, regression becomes self-conscious and utterly without satisfaction or secondary gains. What's the fun of regressing when the caretakers have deserted their duties toward you? Where are they with all their seductive promises of yore? Daddy's little girl or Mamma's favorite son look in vain for the parental strokes denied their siblings. Stripped now of the illusion of preferred status, the daughter and son face life as just another one of the many, many that people this earth.
I see it here playing out among the "children." Of course, these children are all in their 5th and 6th decades, and the dynamics are just as old. Mamma has left us; she actually went and did it after so many years of threatening to do so. She picked a heat wave in which to fulfill the prophecy. Of course, Naples in the summer is always hot as hell, so the heat probably was not that much above the norm for July.

When we finally reached the house it was all over, only we did not yet know it. Their faces, however, informed us as we got out of the taxi, which we had taken from the airport. The trip over had been long and tedious as it always is, but we were optimistic about finding her improved after this last scare. Not to be; this was the real thing.
The ride up on the elevator was the only preparation allowed us. By the time we reached the room in which she lay, we were sufficiently braced for some sort of confrontation. What met the eye was no less than Death Italian Style.
Because it was so hellishly hot, Mamma was laid out on top of the big bed bedecked with the finest satin spread--in an air-conditioned coffin. One could hear the whirl of the motor as it turned on and off according to the setting of the thermostat. The removable top of the coffin was glass so the body could be seen. This example of thanatopsis technology took more getting over than the fact of death itself at that moment. I was fascinated.
Members of the family were standing around the bed not saying anything...just looking. There was a lot of this just standing around and looking as if denial was not yet mitigated by reality. So I stood there and lament-looked.

She had died as we were boarding the plane to Italy from America, so by the time we arrived 24 hours had passed. During this time the body had been washed and prepared and the funeral people had installed the AC coffin. Bodies stay at home in Italy and are not embalmed for viewing as we do in America. You can see why the AC is a good thing under these conditions and traditions. The next 24 hours would be a steady march of relatives and condolences and, yes, looking. At certain periods, the glass top was removed and people expressed their grief by touching and kissing. She was as cold as an ice cube. The room (which did not have AC) was as hot as a working oven.

Italians, with the exception of coffins, don't seem to see the necessity of air conditioning. There's some sort of cultural aversion to it which, for the life of me, I cannot understand. They claim it gives them headaches. It all ties in with another peculiar cultural perception, which is that moving or circulating air, is dangerous. The name they give to a sweet gentle breeze making it's merciful way through the house is "corrente" (current) and it is to be avoided at all cost as it endangers life and limb. Fresh air is welcome in the morning when rooms are cleaned and beds are made, but then...."Basta!" Air and light are carefully controlled so as not to disturb one's equilibrium. When you sleep in the afternoon, the blinds are pulled down tight to prevent light from entering. The only problem I have with this is that it also prevents any air from reaching my Nordic nostrils. Maybe I'm super sensitive because I'm asthmatic. She was asthmatic too.... Mamma was. We used to have the same kind of inhaler. She never understood how to use it properly and I would try to teach her how to breathe in the fumes but she never could get it and we would end up laughing.
Later (after the lament-looking), a different stage emerged, in which everyone commented on how she looked. "Beautiful!" "A Madonna, a saint," etc. The nightgown she wore (here one is buried in nightclothes and no make up is applied.) was appreciated for its fine workmanship. Actually, Mamma had selected it before she died, as she wanted to make sure everything was done right. She had even given one of her sons the money for the funeral so there would be no confusion on that issue either; one very well organized woman that mother in law Mamma of mine. She loved life and ate like a horse until her first born child-daughter got terribly sick and wasn't going to get better. I do believe she, then and there, made up her mind to check out.

Life Italian Style!

The day of the funeral (which was the day after we arrived) was as hot or even more hot than the preceding day. The funeral guys came, put the lid on, and unplugged the coffin. They carried it down the elevator to the waiting funeral car. Gathered by the curb were numerous members of the family who were to join us in the funeral cortege. The church was about 3 miles away and so we all lined up in back of the hearse and slowly made our way on foot to the services. The whole thing felt like Zorba the Greek. My legs and feet were still in the immediate post-travel stage of being hugely swollen, and this made it difficult to walk with any degree of symmetry or grace. I felt like a fucking elephant, not that anyone noticed. I was also very aware of my husband who was faltering next to me, and I prayed he wouldn't have a seizure, (as he is prone to them, especially when emotions are high.)
"Wait for Christ's sake, at least until we get into the church," I thought. Once we made it in there, I sorely wished we hadn't, because it was so ungodly hot and there was absolutely no Corrente! We sat in pews of perspiration as the priest (who had to have been sweating like a maniac himself in all those robes) intoned on and on about this lady whom he had never met. He did a good job though, as far as I could tell, because he was a good actor and put on a classy show. Everyone later commented on how well he did.

Funeral over, it was now time to hi-tail it to the cemetery, except in Naples with its crazy traffic, you don't hi-tail it to anywhere. It can take an hour to go just a few blocks because streets are narrow, cars are many, and there are no rules. Machines (cars) come from everywhere, and then there are the motor scooters that literally scoot in and out of the stalled traffic. To drive here is an experience akin to being in a bumper car at an amusement park. Some amusement! No matter what you do, the world of noise, horns, and fumes goes on avoiding you deftly as you blunder forward in jumps and jerks. Cars hem you in audaciously from every conceivable angle, and just when you think you're going to die, motor bikes sway in front of you, causing you to have your fifth heart attack of the day.

La Vita Italiana!

Cemeteries in Italy are entirely different from what you find in America. First of all, there's precious little space in this little country, so the houses of the dead (and they do look like houses), are piled on top of each other just like the houses of the living. The concept seems to be the same. Everyone wants to be together and there's not enough space. Many of the tomb/houses display photographs of the dead, but not necessarily at the age in which they expired. It kind of gives one a surreal feeling.
Mamma was to be put with her husband who, as I said, died 25 years ago. He has been in a crypt all this time, and at some point, his remains were removed and cleaned and repackaged, so to speak. Hence, as we walked to the place where Mamma was to be transferred from the coffin to a zinc box in which she would be entombed, we saw a man, one of the cemetery employees, carrying in his arms a white shrouded form. As it was laid on a table, we came to understand that it was Papa! It was definitely a body under there but it felt (yes, I touched it through the sheet, of course) like leather...like a mummy. The feet could clearly be discerned from under the sheet. As if this were not sufficient to send me howling into hell, I turned and saw them putting the lid on the zinc coffin. Two men came in and soldered the top shut. There was a valve on the top to allow gases to escape. Very efficient.
Mamma was wheeled out of the room and Papa was placed on top of he ...on top of her! I thought to myself (among many lewd things) whatever happened "till death us do part"? This, I was then told, was actually how they were going to be placed in the crypt. The literalness of all this boggled my all ready over-burdened mind. I mechanically followed the somber family group to the marble perch upon which Mamma and Papa were to be eternally placed. I struggled to organize my face according to the examples before me in an attempt to neutralize all the irreverent craziness that was going on in my head. No doubt I was on the verge of a heat stroke, but that's certainly no excuse for my ribald mental content. I'm a sickoo.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the heavy slab of a marble door slid slowly to close them in.

Death Italian Style

The family group turned toward the heat and noise of the waiting city and the "Che cosa mangiamo sta sera?" ("What are we to eat tonight?") Eat we must and eat we will.... the basic difference between the living and the dead.
I perked up my ears at the talk of food. Yes, in all this stinking heat, I was, as were they all, hungry and ready to resume the quotidian rhythm of hunger/satiation, sleeping and waking; in other words, all the pleasure-pain things that daily drive us in one direction or another.
The dead aren't bothered by these drives. Dead is dead...any style.

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