Saturday, July 01, 2006


Among the main tourist attractions of Palermo are the grisly Catacombe dei Cappuccini and the most popular feast day here is “I Morti” on 2nd November. Therefore it should be no surprise that Sicily has numerous death and mourning traditions and rituals and these, like the bread, vary from town to town and even village to village. I can only tell you of those I have read about and seen.

It seems to be the tradition to have the body brought back to the house if the person did not die at home and there it remains, usually in an open coffin, for family and friends to pay their respects prior to the funeral [which takes place fairly quickly after the death. In Britain we have to queue for a slot in the crematorium chapel’s schedule, usually, just as we have queued for everything all our lives; the final indignity!] Family members hold a vigil during this time.

Louise Hamilton Caico, writing in 1910, tells us of the women of the house making great outward shows of grief – wailing and screaming which could be heard through the entire village and tearing at their hair - and even, in remote areas, of families paying women to come and cry loudly!

Now when a death occurs the notices giving details are put up on a special board [ they have recently been removed from opposite the café here] and there is often a notice outside the house or workplace of the deceased. The front door or main door of a block of flats is left open day and night for people to come and sit with the bereaved family and, if you do not know them well, you just go in and offer your condolences, sit with them until the next person or group arrives, and then you can take your leave. The purpose of this, of course, is that the family are not left alone. Here you can talk about death, grieving and the deceased person. [In Britain it is not uncommon for an acquaintance to cross the street rather than have to speak to you if you have had a bereavement; people just do not know what to say.] No one, by the way, takes advantage of the open door to commit a crime; Sicilians have much too much respect for death. Some families leave all the windows open, too, so that the soul can depart easily. I rather like that.

Sometimes the death notice, informing you where you can view the body, will tell you that there is no need to take il conzu. This fascinates me: the conzu are offerings of prepared meals as it used to be considered disrespectful for the family to light the stove or cook during this time. [Caico mentions it.] It still seems to me a sensible custom: disrespect apart, a family may be just too distressed to feed themselves properly during this initial period of shock, disbelief and sorrow.

People do still wear black for up to a year after the death of a close relative. I know Queen Victoria overdid it and that’s probably why we Brits are reluctant to openly show our emotions following a death [Princess Diana apart but there was more to that, psychologically]. On the whole, I’m with the Sicilians: it seems to me entirely appropriate to wear, for a while, some outward symbol that says, “I am grieving”. I think it’s much healthier to acknowledge the terrible thing that has happened to you and your distress- and to make as much noise about it as you need to. Following the death of my mother in 1993 I received more understanding here than I did at home from people who had known me for years.

One last, strange detail: during a visit to the Museo Etnografico here in 1993, I heard a child from an Italian school group mention that the people in the pictures on the wall of a replica of a peasant house must be dead. On asking Marco how the child had come to make that assumption, I learned that it was because the pictures were placed flush against the wall: if the people had been alive, the tops of the frames would have projected out from the wall.

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