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The Italian-American Funeral:
Persistence through Change
By: Elizabeth Mathias

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This paper originally appeared in Western Folklore, Symposium of Folk Religion, Edited by Don Yoder, Volume XXXIII, Number 1, January 1974, Copyright by the California Folklore Society, page 35-50. The research for this paper was supported by a grant from the Center for Urban Ethnology (NIMH #5-R12-MH 17216), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. A shorter version of the paper was read at the American Folklore Society meeting in Washington, D.C., 13 November 1972.

Elizabeth Mathias has co-authored Italian Folklore in America. She is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at St. John's University, Jamaica, NY. She has studied at the University of Akron (B.A., 1962), Kent State University (M.A., 1964) and the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., 1972; Ph.D., 1974). She was a Fulbright scholar in Italy, has conducted field work there and has taught at Italian universities. She has published several articles on various aspects of Italian culture.


Introduction

One of the most notable features of the funeral of the South Philadelphia Italian-American community is the persistence of South Italian village funeral pattern.
1 The village system of behavior surrounding death and burial has endured through the Italians' emigration from the agriculturally centered settlements of Italy to the urban community of Philadelphia, while the forms have persisted for more than one hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The most striking characteristic of the persisting funeral pattern, however, is that the pattern is borrowed. It is not the peasants' traditional village pattern which the immigrants chose to follow; instead, the persisting pattern is modeled after the system of the "Signori," the landowners for whom the peasants work.2 In this paper, I shall trace the development of the form of the Italian funeral from the village to the urban setting. I shall also examine aspects of change and persistence in this form as they reflect alterations in the motivating force underlying the funeral pattern. (V 60).

The Peasant Funeral
Despite the "indescribable" poverty of the South Italian peasant, peasant families spend as much as possible on funerals.
3 The rural Italian family will deprive itself of its limited comforts and will sacrifice any small reserve it might have accumulated in order to pay for the funeral expenses including new clothes for the deceased. In fact, behavior surrounding death and burial so permeates daily life in the rural south that the peasants may be described as "death oriented."4

Funeral expenditures are considered to be a necessity, however, regardless of their disproportion to the other expenses of life. Just why it is that the peasant fells compelled to sacrifice so much of his meager goods for acts relating to death is the question that must be asked. What are the assumptions which lie behind these acts? And why does the peasant feel such urgency to follow a specific series of steps involving the care and burial of his dead? The answers to these questions appear to lie in the peasant's interpretation of the nature of life after death. Ritual behavior surrounding death and burial are prescribed by folk religion and are are almost exclusively performed in response to the peasant's dread of the return of the soul of the deceased (E 412.3). It is thought that death forces the reluctant soul to begin a journey which leads away from his familiar life on earth, and that the soul yearns constantly to turn and come back to his home; at any point upon the way he might slip, lose his way, and try to return. It is toward the prevention of this return that nearly all peasant funeral ritual is directed.5

In order to calm the soul, useful objects such as cigarettes and matches and small change are placed near the body, and objects of which the deceased had been particularly fond are sent with him in the casket (V 67).6 If something of importance was forgotten it would often be sent in the casket of another villager who died later with hope that the two souls would meet. In order that the soul would not be able to find its way back into the house if it returned, the body was always carried out feet first; by not seeing the door as it left it would not be able to locate it again later. Other precautions are taken on the way to and from the burial. To confuse the soul's sense of direction the procession to the cemetery stops and turns frequently and the return to the house is made by a different route. Also the wailing and lamenting which had begun at the time of the death are forbidden because the soul might hear the pleading and lose its way.7

With the funeral over, the mattress of the deathbed is taken out and washed and a meal is brought from a neighbor's house for the family and very close friends; with this meal the acts directly concerned with the funeral are ended. From now on the soul will be assisted and calmed through prayers and the wearing of mourning clothes by the immediate family.8 The next overt contact with the soul will not be made until The Day of the Dead, 2 November, when the family will go to mass, visit the grave, and leave the favorite foods of the deceased out on the dining table in case the soul should return to the house that night. Although it seems contradictory that food should be placed out as if to attract the soul back into the house when so much earlier effort had been made to prevent its reentry, one Italian informant's spontaneous comment seems to relate this practice to the basic pattern avoidance. When asked why food was left out for the soul this informant exclaimed, "So he'll eat something and get out of here!" Obviously, the emphasis upon the pacification of the soul to keep it in its new realm is continued in this practice.

In the activities of The Day of the Dead as well as those seen throughout the funeral and immediate postfuneral period we may see very clearly the peasants' view of life and death. The soul continues to see, to hear, and to taste, and its life after death is largely a continuation of another level of its life before death. Death is viewed as simply a happening that forces the individual to leave one realm and to begin life again in another. Because the move is forced the soul constantly wishes to return and thus must continually be coaxed to remain in the other realm. Since the daily life of the South Italian villagers is peopled by the spirits of the dead, it is clear why the peasants' life style may be referred to as "death oriented."9 It becomes obvious, in light of this orientation, why the peasant feels so urgently compelled to follow with care the traditional steps of his funeral ritual.

The funerals of the signori as well as those of the peasants involved rituals which were determined by folk belief. The signori, however, were able to spend much more on elaboration of the central idea of avoidance of the return of the soul. How much of this elaboration was directed toward the pacification of the soul, and how much was due to an expression of social competition would be difficult to determine, but both elements were certainly present and both were brought to America by the early immigrants.10 The element of social competition which was to become so important to the Italians in America was present in Italy but did not predominate as it did later in America, where the poverty-stricken condition of the peasant changed for the better and his survival orientation was altered to that of social competition. These two main changes were to affect his world view and were to be evident  in his behavior surrounding death and burial.

The Immigrant Funeral
In the years between 1880 and 1924 about four million of the South Italian villagers transplanted themselves into the United States with most settling in urban ghettos. Great numbers of Abruzzesi, Campobassi, Siciliani, Calabresi and other southerners massed into Philadelphia where, in South Philadelphia, the Italian community had already been established.
11 In the Italian community the transplanted villagers lived closely together in small connected houses on networks of narrow streets in what was a virtually encapsulated environment maintained by shared factors of language, language expressions, physical appearance, clothing, social habits, games, cuisine, official religion, folk belief, and occupation as garment workers. The Italians had very little contact with the larger currents of American life because most held jobs within walking distance of their houses and social life centered around the "Circolo," the familiar form of the Italian men's card-playing club. Women rarely left their homes except to go to market, to church, or to church-linked events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Language isolated the women even more than it did the men; since few of the women had attended school in Italy, few spoke standard Italian and consequently could communicate only in their regional dialects which were understood only by those who had emigrated from the same area.

It was this problem of language teamed with suspicion of people from other villages that caused the Italian immigrants to split into regional factions within the South Philadelphia ghetto. As one informant of Abruzzese extraction told me,"Most of us down here are originally Abruzzesi or Siciliani and we don't get along. Up until ten or fifteen years ago there was trouble if kids tried to marry across the line." Many common elements of life along with shared memories of Italian village life and the shared problems of adapting to the elements of the new situation in America drew the immigrants together, while, on the other hand, diffidence and hostility arising from reactions to regional differences drove them apart. In addition, the Italians were, and still are, separated within their community by locale and by short distances. The spirit of "Campanilismo," in which the village was considered by the peasants to be that area within which the village church bell could be heard, still prevails in South Philadelphia. In the area of my investigation the bell of Saint X's church signaled masses and funerals to the parish, and when the bells tolled slowly at about 9:15 A.M. everyone knew that a member of the immediate community had died. One informant, a man in his mid-thirties who had been born and reared within the shadow of the church buildings reported that he feels his community to cover only a few blocks around the church and referred to people who lived as close as four or five blocks away as "strangers" and "outsiders."

The isolation which the Italians felt from the larger community along with antagonism within their smaller community led to competition for status. Competition was not altogether a new element, as the Italians had been used to competing with their neighbors for what limited goods or advantages were available.
12 Now, however, rivalry became more intense and, because there were more funds available, competition naturally grew fierce in areas involving public ceremony. The funeral, involving as it does a family's final expression of recognition of one of its members, became a stage for competitive display. By the 1930's the immigrants' spending could be referred to as extensive "competitive spending and even competitive waste."13 The better the display, the higher the admiration was for the family; the family would be criticized only if the display was not grand enough. Individuals who spent less than the accepted standard were referred to as sfaciade (bad fronted, bad appearing). Such a social and moral blooper was one which would be remembered and gossiped about for years.

The immigrant had to face grave identity problems in his move from Italy to America. He desired to achieve social recognition in his new environment, but he did not understand the dominant social rules of the new culture. The atmosphere was confusing and threatening; his old patterns of life did not apply very well to the urban scene and even the church failed him now. His familiar brand of Italian Catholicism did not exist within the Catholic church in America; nearly all Catholic parishes were dominated by the Irish and the priest had little understanding of Italian ways. The one thing which all of the Italians shared however, from whatever regions they had immigrated, was the habit of spending much of their goods on ritual behavior. And, along with the desire for status came the necessity for finding some scheme for coping with death which would satisfy the lingering fear on the soul's return. Increased income which was not linked with increased avenues of expression beyond those of the village produced further frustrations.

All of the immigrants remembered the form of funeral of their signori and it was this model to which they turned for a systematic, high status-producing plan of action. The pattern of the signori presented a good starting point for the degrees of embellishment which could be used competitively (see Appendices 1, 2). The funerals of the signori had generally included some evidence of the social rank of the deceased, and this idea of statement of rank was to serve the immigrant well. Because the specific circumstances of an immigrant's position in his village of origin were known only to fellow villagers he could now gain honor with most of his new acquaintances by embroidering the circumstances if his past as well as by displaying any increase in the financial or status level of his family in the present time. In my discussions with Italian women who immigrated to America in the early 1900s I heard repeatedly the story of a villa or piece of land which their family had "left behind" and had always had some intention to return to. The men nearly always were more direct, and claimed to have left nothing behind but hunger and misery. In the adopted country, however, men formed clubs such as the Sons of Italy and sought honorary titles bestowed by the Italian government.
14 These fraternal orders and titles would be displayed in the immigrants' funerals just as the signori had exhibited their titles in the villages.

Gradually, as some immigrants began to accumulate more funds than others, they began to spilt into social levels within the Italian community. A new type of "signori" developed here too, and the funerals of this group became just as elaborate and often even more showy than those of the signori in Italy. One only needs to walk through sections of Holy Cross Cemetery in southwest Philadelphia to see the elaborate statuary and tombs erected by the new "signori" in the late 1800s and 1900s.

The cemetery plot itself performed an important social function for the immigrant. The type of plot, plantings, and stone, as well as the porcelain picture of the deceased, would stand as a permanent visual record for all to see, testifying to the status of the deceased and his survivors (see plates 1 and 2). Into the 1940s the family cared for its own burial plot. Sundays were social days in the cemetery; the whole family would go out for the day, tend to the planting around the stone and have a picnic lunch; the children would take the occasion to play in the grass and there would be chatting and gossiping among the families who had plots nearby. It must be remembered that the peasants had come from a rural environment where they had been used to walking long distances to their fields. When they moved into the American urban setting and went to work in the factories and in the vegetable stalls of the Italian market their physical environment changed radically to allow few chances for outdoor exercise. Week-ends at the family plot in the cemetery were anticipated eagerly by all of the family, and on Sundays a favorite pastime was to stroll among the stones and comment upon those deceased and the families' displays for them. Thus, competition did not end with the funeral, but extended into the cemetery and through the years.

The basic characteristics of the peasant funeral were its simplicity, family control, and -above all- the motivating force, the fear of the soul of the departed. The main points of the funerals of the immigrants are as follows: The peasant model for the funeral was exchanged for the remembered prestigious pattern of the funerals of the signori. A model persisted, but it was that of the signori, elaborated to suit the new needs of the transplanted villagers. The motivating force now was not so much based on folk religion as it was on social competition.
15 The competition for goods and honor persisted from the village, but the rivalry now became more intense as it was complicated by stress among immigrants of different areas of origin.

The funeral pattern of the immigrants set the social model for the present-day Italians, but now that the undertaking parlors have exerted their influence, the trend is toward maximal standardization and minimal personal expression. Thus emphasis shifted even more to the body and its display. Let us consider the character of the Italian funeral model as it has changed into the pattern of today.

The Present Day Italian Funeral
With Italians of South Philadelphia today, we see even greater elaboration in ceremonial display with the emphasis now placed heavily on the way that the body is "laid out" at the funeral parlor. According to one informant, an Italian funeral director, the immigrants had a "laying out" period of three days or more in the the home. The simple preparation of the body was done by the undertaker who would bring his equipment to the house. There was no embalming, so a special table constructed to hold ice was used for display of the body. By the mid-1940s the Italians had accepted embalming and the undertaker would generally come to the house, take the body to his establishment for preparation, and then return it to the house where it would be laid out in a casket surrounded by elaborate floral arrangements, until the time came to go on foot to the nearby church for the mass immediately before the trip to the cemetery. Folk rituals to ensure the soul's easy departure were still practiced and many actions persisted from the peasant villages, but folk religious practice went underground or disappeared under the pressures of the new models for "proper" display. In the entire procedure bella fugura, or good showing, continued to establish itself in funeral display.
16 Real grief was present, of course, and the older members of the family still lamented openly and loudly, feared the soul, and slipped salt under the pillow in the casket and sprinkled it on the door steps after the body had been removed from the house.

Today, however, despite the fact that South Philadelphia's Italians follow many folk religious practices, especially in regard to sickness and death, they are reluctant to admit their beliefs.
17 They deny folk belief by calling it "superstition" and claim that "superstitious" practices are backward and are good enough only for old people and "greaseballs" (the term used for recent immigrants and for earlier immigrants who still cling to old world practices). The old people are hushed when they mourn and few bodies are laid out at home. The padded luxury of the funeral parlor has become the scene of drama of the last hours with the body of the deceased , and the funeral director has taken over the duties which had once been performed in the peasant culture by the family alone.

Funeral bands ceased escorting the body to the church around 1955 and the church outlawed tombstone pictures, very tall stones, and planting at the grave sites (see Appendices 1, 2). The reason given to me for these changes by undertakers was always "for uniformity, we're striving for uniformity," while the priests whom I questioned generally claimed that the changes had been made to cut down on the competition and to decrease expenses by people who are now spending as disproportionate an amount of their yearly incomes on funerals as did their peasant grandparents.
18

In the period of the greatest immigration we noted that the emphasis on the soul began to shift to emphasis on the body and display. The pattern which the post-peasants followed was borrowed from the village signori and the only restrictions were financial. The funeral was still primarily a family affair and also an occasion for community participation in such activities as the funeral bands and Sunday socializing at the cemetery. Today, so far as may be observed, the shift from the soul to the body and social display has been completed. Fears of the soul still exist but controlling rituals are performed privately (F 268).
19 The confusion following death is returned to order through patterned action as usual, but the character of the action is socially determined, and folk religion lays only a silent role in the process.

The emphasis upon the journey of the soul appears to have disappeared, but actually, the overt expressions have only slipped underground to emerge symbolically in other forms such as the flower arrangements surrounding the casket. The floral forms used by the Italians today are those of the signori with some additions (see Appendices 1 and 2). It is in the floral forms of the "Gates of Heaven," the "Half Moon with Star," and the "Stopped Clock" that the journey concept of the peasants' belief is still expressed. When asked about these forms, first and second generation informants as well as those of the immigration period, responded that the "Gates" are used to help the soul get through the gates to heaven, and that the "Crescent Moon and Star" are direction aids because the soul goes between the crescent and the star. The hands of the "Clock" are stopped at the exact time that death is thought to have occurred. For the peasants this signified the beginning of the journey of the soul; for the Italian-Americans the meaning is probably mixed. The answer given now is always that the time signifies the time of death, the ending of a life, and none with whom I talked mentioned that the time could also be that of a beginning of another type of life.

Summary and Conclusion
Remembering the impressive funerals of the signori, the immigrants utilized the economic resources of their new environment to gradually substitute the more prestigious funeral form for their own. Hence, the character of the end result, as we see it today, is shaped from a borrowed model which has changed very little. What changes there are appear to be the result mainly of elaboration and expansion upon the adopted model. As one informant, an elderly Italian florist who specializes in funeral arrangements stated, "There's been no change in it [funeral behavior]. Everything has just gotten bigger." The final expanded stage of the model has now become stabilized as an obligatory social model which is strongly enforced by social sanctions operating upon the degree to which the model has followed. This standardized model is followed by the South Philadelphia Italian immigrants through the third generation, despite the fact that most are ignorant of its actual origin.

The initial change in the Italian-American funeral was from one Italian form to another, not from an Italian form to an American form. Although this basic change emerged in America, it roots lay in the peasants' envy and yearning for the more satisfying pattern which they observed in use by their economic superiors in the villages.
20 The process reflects even more profound changes in the peasants' belief and value system, because, with the immigration to America, a significant alteration in the type of motivation materialized. The peasant's funerals as well as those of the signori involved rituals followed according to the dictates of a system of folk religious beliefs which emphasized the pacification of the soul of the deceased; the soul would surely return if specific acts were not carefully performed and certain avoidances not observed (F 268).21 Although the soul always has the power to return, the acts carried out at the time of the death would assure, at least, that it would return only in a form that could be predictably controlled by rituals designed specifically for this purpose.

After the massive immigration of the early 1900s the focus of inspiration began to shift away from the soul and its control to the body and its display.
22 Protection and avoidance rituals were still used, but the acts were more and more covertly performed. The immigrant's desire to fit into the new environment by adopting "American" ways influenced many spheres of his life, and the elaboration of the funeral showed the effects of this desire.23 The dominant character of the Italian-American funeral is change blended with persistence. The first change which occurred was from Italian to Italian, the potentiality for which existed before the immigration occurred, in the peasants' observation of the funeral model of the signori. Thus, an Italian form did survive the immigration, but it was not the peasants' own model which persisted. Change also dominated in the force behind the form of the funeral, but here also there is a mixture of change and persistence; Spiritual/Soul Fear becomes Social/Status Fear. In this change, however, folk religious beliefs still exert a strong covert influence. The following diagram (A) demonstrates the persistence of the Italian funeral forms along with the change in motivating force which occurred in America.

One thing which became clear as I spoke with American-Italians on this subject, is that many meanings of symbols are now understood only in terms of stock explanations which no longer have a basis in the majority of the Italians' active belief system. The answers to my questions about flower arrangements, for example, with the exception of the "Clock," implied belief in the soul's journey; yet there were no more comments beyond the initial statements, and the informants could not elaborate beyond their first responses. Various symbols used and symbolic acts performed appear to have lost their meanings altogether and their use continues mainly because not to follow the sanctioned patterns invites social censure.

Perhaps in another generation the funeral symbols themselves will become indistinct and finally disappear as new needs and goals force further changes in the lives of Philadelphia's Italians. Certainly, it has taken little time for their folk beliefs as an integrated system to be replaced by fears which are either strictly social or separated from any integrated system to be replaced by fears which are either strictly social or separated from any integrated system at all. The passing of the intensity and enthusiasm teamed with the unity of form that characterized the peasant and the immigrant funerals, despite their origin in fear, signal the end of a tradition.

Plate 1
Examples of common styles in tombstone plaques of the immigrant period.
The photos were taken at Holy Cross Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Mathias1a.jpg (29151 bytes) Mathias1aa.jpg (72171 bytes) A, "Nostro Fratello" (our brother).
Mathias1ba.jpg (30975 bytes) Mathias1bb.jpg (64513 bytes) B, the husband and wife: two generations.
Mathias1c.jpg (51752 bytes) C, sea shore scene (damaged by gunshot)
Mathias1d.jpg (39564 bytes)

D, immigrant male with hat. The has was valued as a departure from the
peasant cap.

Mathias1dd.jpg (34438 bytes)

 

Plate 2
Stones of 1950s to present day of upper income Italians.
Pictures are now outlawed but sculpture and palm art are still common.

Mathias2e.jpg (35691 bytes)

E, the bridal photograph.

Mathias2ea.jpg (28049 bytes)
Mathias2eb.jpg (59594 bytes)                     Mathias2ec.jpg (54113 bytes)

 

Diagram (A)

sjgraph.gif (4974 bytes)


Appendix 1
Italian Funeral Customs in Italy

Signori

Peasants 1850s
Emphasis on the Soul of the deceased

1. Elaborate floral wreaths surrounding the casket featuring the following motifs: lyre, gates of heaven, half moon with star, bleeding heart, cross, rosary, pillar, clock face--hands stopped at exact time of death 1. A cross of flowers

2. Funeral band--one or more 2. Village band if available
3. High mass with sacrament at the altar 3. Mass with no sacrament
4. A cart or elaborate hearse pulled by 2-8 black horses
4. Pine box carried on shoulders of friends, procession on foot
5. Wood casket and one of zinc to endorse it; insignia, of profession or rank, in gold on lid 5. Pine box
6. Professional mourners hired 6. Old women of the village sometimes paid to mourn
7. Elaborate laying out in the house on bier--all new clothes
7. Laying out in house on bed or on an available table--clean clothes
8. Announcement cards with name, house, and title stamped in gold 8. No cards
9. Porcelain pictures for grave stones and for brooches 9. Pictures only rarely
10. Elaborate monument of marble 10. Small stone or wooden cross
11. Grave tended by peasants 11. Grave tended by family
12. Folk belief practices. Largely his written accounts published 12. Multitude of folk belief practices, use of vinegar and salt; precautions taken to protect body from witches

 

Appendix 2
Italian Funeral Customs in America

Transition-Peasant Immigrants 1850s-1930s
Emphasis shifting from soul to the corpse, and to display

Present Day (1940s-1972)
Emphasis on "proper" display, social status

1. Increase in flowers to at least several wreaths but limited by costs

1. Elaborate wreaths with addition of special types such as: chair, symbolizing that in heaven for the deceased; pillar, symbolizing pillar of the household; football-for a child; clock with hands stopped at time of death
2. Funeral band--one or more 2. Bands discontinued in 1950s
3. Various degrees of mass according to ability to pay 3. High mass--sacrament for the family
4. Cart or hearse pulled by 2-8 horses 4. Hearse, flower cars (the more the better for status)
5. Wooden casket 5. Bronze casket
6. Paid mourners 6. Gradually discontinued by group
7. Laying out in house as elaborate as funds allowed; embalming usual by the 1940s; new or relatively new clothes 7. Elaborate laying out in funeral parlor. Cosmetic treatment for body; new clothes, elaborate dress
8. Announcement cards, mass cards brought by friends 8. Newspaper notice; mass cards $3 and up
9. Porcelain pictures for stones and brooches 9. Discontinued in 194 by church
10. Monument as elaborate as possible 10. Monuments regulated by church-trend to uniformity
11. Grave tended by family. Social occasion for Sundays, planting of shrubs (sometimes tomato plants) 11. 'Perpetual care" paid for by family; planting outlawed
12. Protection-oriented practices still used but not so overtly; salt still used 12. Protective practices covertly performed

Sources:
Nobilio, Elvira. Vita Tradizionale dei Contadini Abruzzesi new Territorio di Penne. Florence: Olschki, 1962.
Berti, C.C. "Usi e Credenze Funelori del Bolognese." Rivista della Tradizione Populare, no. 1 (1894): 460-68.
Personal observations and interviews in southern Italy and South Philadelphia.

Footnotes:
1. This study seems to indicate parallel processes found among Mohawks in structural steel work and among Hasidic Jews in suburban America. See Morris Freilich, "Cultural Persistence among the Modern Iroquois," Anthropos 53 (1958): 473-483, idem, "The Modern Shtetl: A Study of Cultural Persistence," Anthropos 57 (1962): 45-54.

2. For a discussion of a similar process of the borrowing of prestige models among upwardly mobile groups, see Ernestine Friedl, "Lagging Emulation in the Post-Peasant Society," American Anthropologist n.s., 66 (1964): 560-586. The terms "padroni" or "signori," as used by the Italians refer to the wealthier landowners of the villages for whom most peasants worked.
    The large majority of my informants of South Philadelphia derive from emigration from villages of the provinces of Abruzzi-Molise, and Basilicata (the Lucania of Carlo Levi's Cristo si È Fermato a Eboli), and from Sicily. Nearly all are from agricultural backgrounds.


3. Joseph Loreato, Peasants No More: Social Class and Social Change in an Under-developed Society (Scranton, N.J., 1967), 78.


4. Leonard Moss and Walter H. Thompson, "The South Italian Family: Literature and Observation," Human Organization 18 (1959): 35-41.


5. The body of the deceased as well as the soul became extremely vulnerable at death. In its unresolved state between death and burial the body had to be protected from attack and occupation by evil spirits. Salt was the agent used in this protection. It was generally placed in a saucer upon the chest of the body as well as sprinkled around the body and at the openings to the house.


6. The habit of placing objects in the casket persists today among Italian-Americans. One South Philadelphia funeral director reported to me that small change is almost always placed in the pocket of the deceased as well as some useful small objects such as eye glasses or cigars. The largest object he reported seeing in a casket was a bocce ball. Bocce, a favorite game of male immigrants, resembles bowling on the green but is played on especially constructed courts.


7. For a full discussion of full Italian funeral laments, see Ernesto de Martino, Morte e Pianto Rituale del Mondo Antico: del Lamento pagano al Pianto di Maria (Turin, 1958).


8. Periods of mourning vary with the locals. The normal mourning period in the South, including Sicily and Sardinia, is four years in black for the wife of the deceased and two years for the daughters who, however, have the option of wearing grey for the second year since black is also worn for other members of the family. The south Italian women usually is dressed permanently in black by the time she is thirty.

9. Moss and Thompson, 35-41.

10. Funerals in Italy often were rated from the first grade of the wealthiest down to a fourth grade for those who could afford to pay almost nothing. See C.C. Berti, "Usi e Credenze Funelori del Bolognese," Rivista della Tradizione Populare 1 (1894): 462.


11. By this time the Italian Christian Street market, which, starting at Christian, stretches for blocks down 9th Street, was in operation, and the church of Saint Mary Magdelene had been built. This church, erected in 1852, was the first Italian Catholic Church in America.


12. The village system of competition for advantages which governs much peasant behavior has been labeled "The Image of Limited Good." The belief is that all good things, nonmaterial as well as material, are in limited, unexpandable supply. This results in anyone's good fortune being seen as all others' bad fortune. See George Foster, "Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good," American Anthropologist 67 (1965): 293-315. See also Lopreato's discussion of peasant competition for status and prestige within the confines of their own group, Peasants No More, 15.


13. Phyllis H. Williams, South Italian Folkways in Europe and America (New Haven, Conn. and London, 1938), 71.


14. For a list of honorary titles and organizations see Ernest L. Biagi, The Italians of Philadelphia (New York, 1971). See especially ch. 6, "Cavalieri: Titles and Decorations," 114-121.


15. With display comes increased desire for an audience, and it soon became a breach of etiquette which could cause the end of a friendship of long years standing if favors were not returned. The model of dyadic contract (reciprocal favors) works well to describe the situation where attendance at the "laying out" of a relative of a friend was mandatory. See George Foster, "The Dyadic Contract in Tzintzuntzan II: Patron-Client Relationship," American Anthropologist n.s., 65 (1963): 1280-94.


16. The body must be displayed well or the family is dishonored. It is the family. not the undertaker who is blamed for a poor display. One or two members of the family make a first check of the body before the formal viewing. According to one informant, this critical examination would extend so far as to whether there was enough padding and the color in the cheeks. If all was acceptable the body would then be dressed in its new suit and placed in the coffin, surrounded by the many forms of floral arrangements. At this point the family would be called again and a check would be made of the appearance of the body in the coffin. Even at this late stage in the arrangements, changes are often made. One informant spoke of a woman who was so careful to display her husband well that she requested a change in the color of the lining of the coffin only a few hours before the official viewing was to begin. The quality of the viewing is so important that careful plans are often laid out in advance by persons who feel that they may die soon and do not completely trust their families to display them properly. One man whose funeral I attended this past year had, without his family's knowledge, purchased an expensive casket and had had a large mausoleum built for his body alone.


17. For example, belief in the "overlook," or evil eye, is still strong even among third generation Italians. Many wear a gold or red plastic horn or mano in fica, a clenched fist with the thumb protruding between the middle and index fingers, on a neck chain along with a crucifix or religious medal. Ceremonies are commonly performed within small groups to remove headaches caused by the overlook.


18. The average cost of a funeral, not including the stone and grave site, was quoted to me as between $1,700.00 and $5,000.00. The average yearly income of the Italian head of the family was said, by numerous informants, to be around $4,000-$5,000. The homes of the Italians in the immediate market area where I have centered my study sell for $3,000 to $6,000.


19. The only overt expression seen today is in mourning garb which is worn by old women, recently immigrated women, and some others over about sixty years of age. Women under sixty-five generally wear black for one year only.


20. Appendices 1 and 2 present a comparative listing of funeral forms.


21. See Elvira Nobilio's account of the funeral in Abruzzia, Vita Traditionale del Contadini Abruzzese nel Territorio di Penne (Florence, 1962). The distinction made in this paper between folk religion and the official religion follows that made by Don Yoder, "Official Religion versus Folk Religion," Pennsylvania Folklife 15 (Winter 1965-66): 36-42.


22. Lopreato, p. 43 (from C. Vannutelli), records that the peasant immigrants from Italy left in such great numbers from 1906 to 1915 that the Abruzzi-Molise had a "...net loss from emigration of 43 percent of its inhabitants" and lists Basilicata as losing 38.5 percent. See also Robert Foerster, The Italian Emigration of Our Times (Cambridge, Mass., 1919), for statistics and discussion of Italian immigration to the Western Hemisphere.


23. The term "American" is still used by the Italians, even of the second and third generations, to signify nearly anyone or anything not Italian. It is often used derisively to indicate inferior quality in food, personal habits, and the like. For example, to leave a gathering quickly without saying good-bye is called to leave "American style." A well-mannered Italian will not leave even his neighborhood food store without taking care to greet the shopkeeper as he leaves.

Italian Folktales in America:
The Verbal Art of an Immigrnat Woman

By Elizabeth Mathias and Richard Raspa

mathiasbook2.jpg (101297 bytes) The first ethnographic study of a northern Italian folk artist and her verbal artistry in their cultural and historical contexts is presented in this volume by Elizabeth Mathias and Richard Raspa.

The focus of this collection of folktales, delightful in their own right, is Clementina Todesco as developing artist. Supplementing the traditional märchen (magic tales) she told as a girl in her remote village in the Italian Alps are the immigration stories that Clementina added to her repertoire after she had left the rural Italian economy of Faller for the industrial cities of the New World. More than an anthology of folktales, the study adds information gathered over a ten -year period from the villagers of Faller, from collections of variants of the stories in Italy, and from analogues in published and archival sources in Detroit and Rome. Perhaps the most fascinating addition is a series of interviews with Clementina herself, conducted in Tuscon, Arizona, that help to characterize her as a folk artist: her personal, social, and cultural experience; the structure of her stories; and her view of humanity.


"The result is a work that greatly enriches our understanding of who told (and tells) märchen to whom, why and how they are told, and perhaps most important, under what conditions."

- from the Foreword

The preceding compilation is the work of Elizabeth Mathias. All rights reserved.
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