Yesterday's Magazette

11 – Somber Memories

Somber Memories

By Clyde L. Borg

An aura of solemn calmness pervaded the scene; drawn curtains, dim lighting, hushed conversation, careful movement and the sweet aroma of cut flowers transformed the apartment into a place of apparent sadness, quiet respect, and somber recollection. A wake was being held in the deceased person’s home.

It was common for wakes to be held in the home of the departed years ago; a flower was placed outside the building to designate the location. The vigil lasted for three full days and nights and the body could never be left alone, which required family members to make arrangements so that at least one person would be next to the coffin at all times. Food and drink had to be provided for the family and for all who came to pay their respects. It was an extremely emotional and tension filled period that the family had to endure.

My main recollections stem from observing my Uncle Tony’s wake and funeral in Brooklyn. He owned an old ornate brownstone house and it was in his first floor apartment that the event occurred. I can remember my sister and my four cousins eating in the kitchen while Uncle Tony lay in a casket in the living room. My cousin, Barbara, while slicing her ham steak, caused a piece to fly across the room that precipitated an uproar of inappropriate laughter.

At the conclusion ofthe doleful three-day ordeal the family then endured the most emotional moment of all, the closing of the coffin. It invariably caused a wave of uncontrollable screaming and crying among the immediate family members. I can still vividly remember my Uncle Joe screaming out, ”No more coffee Tony,” as his brother’s casket was being closed. Uncle Joe’s utterance incited a clamorous outpouring of lamentation throughout the house.

From there the body was carried to the church for the funeral Mass, where amid the sorrowful organ music more loud sobs could be intermittently heard but because of the religious location the mourners were more subdued.

After Mass the funeral cortege departed for the cemetery where the priest led everyone in a final prayer. The entourage then witnessed the coffin being slowly lowered into the open grave, which generated a cacophony of wails and cries. Each person then tossed flowers into the resting place as they passed by to say their last goodbye.

There was an incident at my sister’s graveside ritual that was related to me by my grandmother. It seems that when people had placed flowers in the grave, I had tossed the house keys, which I had been given to play with, into the open pit. When the family arrived home and searched for the keys I told them I had thrown them into the grave so that my sister could get back into the house.

When my grandmother passed away the family was prepared to have the wake at  home, in fact, funeral people started preparing her body in the apartment. Somehow they decided to go to a funeral parlor. The funeral parlor or mortuary eventually replaced the home and made it easier on the bereaved families. The viewing of the deceased was limited to afternoon and evening hours that allowed time for people to eat and rest. My grandmother’s wake was the first time it was used in my family.

There was less privacy for the family in the funeral home. During my Uncle Tony’s wake the family was able to place my Uncle Andy’s ashes in the coffin with him.

Because the family could not afford to have his body shipped home to Brooklyn from California the only alternative was cremation. His ashes reposed in a black marble box atop a shelf in my bedroom for years. That special chest was placed cautiously under Uncle Tony’s pillow inside the coffin. It would have been more difficult to accomplish that deed in a funeral parlor.

Once the departed was buried family members had to observe a period of mourning exemplified by the wearing of black for a year and the abstention from all forms of entertainment for the same period. It was quite common for Italian widows to wear black for the remainder of their lives. Failure to abide by this code of mourning showed disrespect for the deceased. I can remember my Aunt Grace sobbing hysterically because she was in earshot of a street organ grinder. She was in mourning for my grandmother and the music was inappropriate and it caused her sorrow.

Today the mourning days are rarely observed after the burial. The public viewing of the closing ofthe casket and the lowering of the coffin into the grave has been eliminated. Wakes are now usually held for only one or two days and sometimes people defer the funeral mass for a simple prayer service in the mortuary. The days and nights of solemnity are no more.

Vol. 36 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter – 2009-2010


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