A funeral, a wedding and a baptism in Sicily

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This September has been a sombre month, the end of summer and the prelude to winter it is a transitional period in the cycle of life with the promise of new beginnings.

The month began with the funeral of a friend’s great grandmother who was the matriarch of the family. Carmela was elderly and she gradually slipped away after a series of illnesses.

Observing the funeral outside the usual emotive elements made me realise how different this rite is celebrated here in Sicily, filled with a palpable serving of tradition. The Christian ceremony becomes almost Muslim in Sicily with the funeral taking place after a twenty-four-hour vigil, where the deceased is taken to their home. A room is set up where family and friends come to say their final goodbye and it is often an open casket, so death is very visible and placed at the centre of the home.

In these small Sicilian towns the local community come together to bring food to the grieving family for a week, nothing is done in the household of the bereaved, no clothing is hung out to dry and when the corpse is in the house all doors and windows are left open, as the soul of the dearly departed must be free to leave.

During the church service, no homily is given in memory of the deceased, the funeral is like a normal mass in memory of a parish member. This is sad as the recollections of a lifetime seem to be glazed over in an enforced stoic silence, death becomes almost mundane.

 

No one seemed to pay tribute to poor Carmela who kept her long hair tied in a traditional low bun, who loved good food and adored chocolate and who when she laughed giggled like an embarrassed school girl despite being well into her eighties.

I’m sure Carmela would have had a biting comment for her daughter in law and niece who had so vehemently grieved her as they easily cast off the dark veil of their mourning for a cute black dress at a wedding a little more than a week later. Grief must cancel out a lifetime of antagonism and a good wedding gives people the excuse to move on.

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Next came a very Sicilian bride at the beginning of another type of journey.

As I have blogged before about weddings, how they are a big and an expensive deal here in Sicily.

If you get a partial invite only to the church, as I did, you can spend much less on the gift and there is no need to go out and buy a new evening dress. It’s safe to come and participate in the church ceremony without being a part of the circus of glitter and observation.

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It was a pleasure and I thank my girlfriend for the privilege of letting me watch her arrive in a beautiful lace decorated white wedding dress and get married to her best friend in a traditional ceremony.

Francesco and Concetta were calm and well prepared. I was surprised to see they had memorized their vows, there was almost no need for a priest at all, they simply were giving a promise before the altar and God.

 

For the first time in the local church here in Sicily, I saw holy communion given in the traditional way with holy wine, this was a glimpse into ancient Sicilian religious traditions.

In Australia, it is normal to take the symbolic wafer bread of Christ’s last supper and dip it into the wine offered by two different people.

In little village Sicily it’s all done by the priest, you are not to touch anything, not to say Amen, everything is placed into your mouth and you are expected to nod profusely at the giving of communion. It felt like being back in medieval times, total silence and reverent submission to the central ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church.

I am constantly in awe at how the same religion can have so many different ways of being practised according to which nation you find yourselves in.

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Finally, I move onto the baptism, which is as much a spectacle as a wedding.

The religious element of a baptism is often forgotten with the distractions of superficial preparations and materialistic concerns that tend to overshadow the religious rite which welcomes a child into the community.

It saddens me to see how a new journey through the church becomes about buying the perfect outfit, the flashiest gold jewellery gift for the child and the restaurant’s seafood menu.

Such are the contradictions of life in small-town Sicily.