Making friends with death

Since coming to Sicily, I’ve become more acquainted with death. In Sicily, mortality isn’t hidden in funeral homes or polite obituaries printed in newspapers.

The end of life is part of every day, and the rites associated with mortality become tinged with a mixture of superstition and religion. The ceremony of death in Sicily makes transience almost mundane.

Bereavement notices aren’t published in small neat columns in the births and death section of the daily newspaper. Instead, they are printed on large rectangular posters with the deceased’s name in bold print at its centre. They are decorated appropriately with various religious images from the Virgin Mary and the crucified Jesus Christ to Saint Padre Pio.

The posters are on notice boards, billboards, light poles or on walls beside other public notices and advertisements for cinemas and kitchen appliances. The news of deaths and funerals is circulated like mundane ads or other community announcements.

Mortality has the same importance as anything else on the rumour mill. The biggest news on the local grapevine is who has died, followed by funeral service details.

Elderly women meet one another on their way to and from the supermarket, repeating the same news until it is dispersed into the ether as efficiently as any radio station.

Funerals are do-it-yourself at home affairs in small towns, full of ancient traditions and superstitions. If a person dies in a hospital or away from home, they are brought back to their own house.

A room is usually cleared and prepared for the viewing of the deceased. Once at home, friends and family clean and dress the corpse, the undertaker arriving later to place the body in the coffin.

The casket is put on a stand, surrounded by candle-shaped lights. Often a religious icon is placed at the head of the coffin. The scene is completed with rosary beads in the deceased’s hands and a transparent veil over the open casket.

After the corpse has been prepared, the local priest arrives to give a special blessing. He also provides confession to the family to participate in the Eucharist during the religious service, and he confirms the details for the solemnities.

Religious rites and burials are usually held twenty-four hours after death. The posters announcing a bereavement have already been distributed, so people begin arriving immediately to pay their respects.

The family holds a vigil beside the usually opened casket (unless the departed has died in hospital, after which it is sealed closed, according to the health regulations). The house of the departed is open all night to receive visitors. And to honour an old superstition that says the dead soul should not remain trapped in this world. Until the corpse leaves, everything is left ajar, so the soul is free to go and take with it all the bad luck associated with fatality.

Traditionally, the family living in the house where the coffin was held doesn’t do any form of housework for about ten days, which is considered bad luck. Friends and family supply cooked food, so daily life stops.

People who choose to go into mourning wear all black, without any jewellery. Widows usually wear black for the rest of their lives, especially the elderly. Adult children of the deceased typically wear black for one year as a sign of respect, but this has become a personal choice rather than a duty.

When the burial hour arrives, the undertakers move the coffin out of the house and transport it to the church. Family and mourners follow behind on foot if the church is nearby. As the hearse moves off, a procession forms behind as people from the local community join the family to celebrate the funeral mass in the church.

The service is usually short. The priest is the only one who speaks and gives a special blessing to the family and the deceased. After the ceremony, the coffin is taken to the cemetery. If it is nearby, people walk. The priest says a few words, and people say goodbye to the deceased by kissing their hands and touching the casket.

Outside the entrance to the graveyard, the family receives the condolences of those who have attended the funeral. A week after the burial, a religious service is held in memory of the deceased, another one a month later, then after one year.

Then according to the wishes of the family, an annual memorial mass can be held to commemorate the anniversary of the person’s death. Sepulture is a well-rehearsed ritual performed without thought and despite emotion.

The burial business is precise and brisk, the solemnities occurring only a day after the death one can almost be forgiven for thinking Sicilian’s are indifferent to the rituals. But the routine helps them not be courageous but rather to share the burden with the broader community; they experience their mortality collectively.

A death in a small town is a loss for a family and the entire population. The dread of passing away is always with them. Still, the anxiety is relieved by the ceremonies performed with a precise regularity as an expression of collective grief.

Sicilian funerals become a manifestation of the collective community experience.