If there is one thing I’ve learned about being Italian in my 29.25 years on this earth, its that our funeral wakes are the absolute worst. No other nationality, at least that I have seen, hosts a funeral so desperately hopeless that ten minutes into arriving you’re considering ending your own life just to get out there quicker.
I have been to other funerals that truly are a life celebration. A video montage is playing with AC/DC in the background while people mill about reminiscing and telling anecdotes about the deceased. These gatherings are usually a one case of bud light away from a party and that’s the way I think funerals should be. Your closest friends and family gathering around to laugh about the time they caught you making out with the family dog. They sure as hell couldn’t talk about it when you were alive so why not have a laugh now.
But Italian funerals…sweet jesus murphy, what an arduous journey it is to attend an Italian funeral home even if its for only 20 minutes.
First of all, you usually have to line up behind the forty-five other visitors just to get a chance to go down the line of never ending sorrow. This is where the immediate family lines up in order of who was the closest in relation to the deceased so that visitors have a running shot at guessing who the hell everyone is. I always feel like the family is has a running bet to see which one of them can make the most guests cry. The purpose of this receiving line also escapes my logical boundaries, because if I’ve been crying and grieving for the past forty-eight hours that’s usually not the time I try to get out and meet some new people.
I am convinced that I will say something stupid in the midst of any funeral receiving line. Recently, a friend of mine’s grandmother passed away so I willfully subjected myself to his family gauntlet to show my support. To the first two people I met I said, “Nice to meet you’, which immediately felt too awkward to continue you on with. Next I saw my friend’s mother and said, ‘Nice to see you’ which was decidedly much worse so I threw in a mumbled “Sorry” and quickened my pace. I managed to make it through the next 5 or 6 people with either “Sorry” or “Really sorry” and then a quick shuffle step to the next person. When I finally made it to my buddy at the end of the line, I felt more like he was comforting me than vice versa.
In discussing the perils and awkwardness of the receiving line with him later he mentioned how his father had once attended a wake and wished the brother of the deceased a “Happy Birthday”. This made me feel better about my equally lackluster performance.
But the big turd on top of the sh*tcake that is an Italian funeral is the open casket. This has never and will never make any sense to me. At what point in history did showcasing a corpse like a freshly stuffed turkey become a good idea? I guess nothing says closure like a plastic face and the endearing smell of formaldehyde.
All of the above work together to provide an extremely awkward experience. So I am always glad when someone lightens the mood with any sort of joke or pun, which in turn allows me to start making them myself. I try not to be first to throw out the one-liners, but once the can is opened I am tossing worms by the handful.
As I walked into the funeral home with a friend of mine we noticed we were one of the first ones to arrive. My friend leaned over to me and said, “Wow, its pretty dead in here huh?” And now that the can had been blown open I felt it appropriate to reply with, “I know, its surprising, and people are usually dying to get in here”
Some people will certainly see this as disrespectful, but since when does being respectful of the dead include not laughing and pretending to be miserable? The dead are dead, I don’t know why we try to make it more than that. They hopefully lived a good life and they died. All that us non-grievers and outsiders can do is stand by our loved ones to support them. And in my eyes there is no better support than a steady stream of laughter.
A few days after the funeral I was speaking to my friend (lets call him Bobby) about his grandmother’s funeral and I mentioned some of the jokes that were said behind the scenes at the wake. Not only did he laugh with me, but also provided one of the best stories of all.
Apparently, the day before the funeral Bobby’s entire family was gathered and discussing who the pall bearers would be. His father suggested several men, one of which being Bobby’s 13 year old cousin who is built like a piece of a celery. Bobby strongly objected to this idea and wanted to make sure everyone knew, “There’s no way he is carrying the casket with us. Do you honestly think he is going to be able to walk around with 300+ pounds of dead weight, ummm, I mean, shit, sorry, you know what I mean. He won’t be able to carry it. Sorry”
Bobby said all of his relatives had a good laugh just as we did when he retold the tale.
So that’s my lesson of the day: You can lend support to your friends however you see you fit. They don’t expect you to be as miserable and grief stricken as them. But should you ever find yourself attending an Italian funeral, be prepared for the endless line of grief. Put your hand out and your head down and hit the “I am sorry for your loss” button as many times as you have to until its over.
Otherwise, those funerals will suck the life right outta you.