I am sitting wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a black tie. F sits next to me with dark trousers, dark shirt and dark jacket. Next to him is a guy wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops like he’d just come from the beach. And, yet, it seems, he doesn’t feel uncomfortable dressed in this way.
I had been warned but I wasn’t quite expecting to be so over-dressed.
Someone likened me to the Men In Black which, I realised, with my glasses, dark in the sunshine, was possibly true.
Now, I’m no expert on British funerals. I think I’ve been to five – one of which was with people of Jamaican origin, so doesn’t really count as “British”. But, from my experience (always excluding the Jamaican one), it goes something like this:
You go directly to the church (only the very close family members would be at the home beforehand); the coffin is closed; there is a service; you either go to the crematorium where there is another kind of service where the coffin disappears behind a curtain or to the cemetery, where the coffin is put into a hole in the ground, some people throw a flower or dirt on the coffin and it’s then filled in by a mechanical digger and the wreaths placed on top; you go back to the house (or a pub or somewhere) and you have a bit of a party where you spend the time reminiscing about the person. There are some tears. There are some laughs. The party helps to lift the mood; relieves the tension. It “rounds off” the sadness with some good memories and some a good (if a little subdued) time.
The Jamaican one was different. The coffin is open. There is wailing and crying. The church is so packed that people are standing four-deep at the back! There is a point at which people queue to pass the coffin where they touch the body and do a bit more wailing. Wives, sisters, nieces are supported as it seems as if, at any moment, they will collapse on the floor. The vicar at one point threatens to throw people out because there is too much talking in the congregation!!! It was strange.
Italian funerals, much like Italian weddings are similar to British ones but slightly different. In both cases, the party (where there could be dancing and stuff) is missing. In the case of the wedding, it is a meal that lasts for hours and has a million courses – but no dancing and music and people getting really, really drunk.
F doesn’t want me to come down the night before. Instead, I drive down in the morning. I’m doing what he wants – making myself available for whatever he says I should do but not wanting to be any sort of burden for him.
I arrive at his house to get changed and he is there. He says that I should come to “the house” about 12.30. To be honest, I’m very nervous but really because I don’t know what to expect. He tells me that S (his previous partner) has sent flowers. I feel a bit miffed because I would have sent flowers but he said not to. I say that I should have sent some. He says it’s OK, it’s because S can’t come to the funeral. I don’t argue with him – he doesn’t need anything but support from me.
He leaves to go for lunch there (something quick and easy, he says, don’t come because they will be embarrassed by the food (not to their normal standards)) and I am to go into the town and get something to eat. That’s OK for me. Except, it’s really out of season, so more places are closed or shut for lunch or stuff. I eventually sit at a cafe and have some pasta dish. It’s not “wow” but I don’t care. It may be the only food I have today. I have a beer with it – after all there will be no party with alcohol and food afterwards – this much I know.
I try to get him the cigarettes he has asked for but the tobacconist is closed (for lunch, I guess, or just because …….).
I go back to his house and park and walk round to the house. I am about 20 minutes late. I expect the house to be filled with people but I am “the first” of this afternoon’s visitors. At the moment, it’s just the immediate family (and F). And, now me.
Most people have T-shirts and trousers. I, on the other hand, am the Man In Black. F says, “I told you so.” I say, “I don’t care, it’s how we do it in the UK.” For me, it’s a sign of respect and I can be a funny bugger like that. It’s tradition and it’s my tradition, so I’ll stick to it.
I go to see the body, laid out on the bed. As I approach the bedroom, E (the only daughter and like a sister to F) comes out. We hug. I go into the bedroom, am introduced to E’s mother-in-law and I see the body. But it isn’t her. it looks a bit like her but it’s not her. She’s not there, in this room. I leave. I then spend the next hour or so trying to be inconspicuous in the corner. This is hard because I tower over most people and also because I look like some secret agent and I’m not known by everyone.
Some people greet me; F’s niece, sister, mother, some other relations. His Dad comes later and looks visibly shocked to see me and also deeply upset (not to see me – it was his sister). The Funeral Director’s people come to put the body in the coffin, etc. They have blue, short-sleeved shirts, no jackets and striped blue ties. I look more like one of their people than they do – but, then, this is not the UK. At least they wear a tie.
The brother comes. From Sicily. He’s a priest. I’ve met him once or twice before. For some strange reason, I always feel, when he looks at me, that he is judging me. I always stare him out, refusing to be intimidated by someone from the church. Of course, this may be entirely in my mind. Or not?
Apparently, a few days ago, he was up for a few days to see his sister. They didn’t know how long she would live. He is, of course both the uncle of F and the uncle of E. Apparently, he asked E if “F’s friend” had been there. E replied that he should use the correct term – that I was not F’s friend but F’s boyfriend! I only know this much. I wanted to ask his reaction – but I dare not. I’m impressed by E but my wanting to know his reaction is, really, a desire to give the church a “slap”. So, when F told me all this, a few days ago, I didn’t enquire further.
Anyway, I digress. The coffin is carried out to the car. We all walk to the car. There are a lot of people milling around. I am definitely out of place, not only for towering over everyone. The big, fat priest (not the uncle), who has been mopping his brow every few moments, walks in front of the car and the people, led by the daughter and husband an other close relatives (but not F – where is F? I look around. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be!) and then the rest of the people, follow behind at the slow pace thing they do for a funeral procession. The sun is shining and it’s very hot. I am dying in my dark suit. F suddenly appears beside me. “I’m going to leave my jacket in the car,” he says. “Do you want to leave yours too?” I reply that, no, I don’t. I’m going to be the usual stubborn Englishman that I always am and wear my jacket and suffer, even in this extreme heat.
I also inform him that, as I’ve been sweating a lot, to take my jacket off would expose that. To explain: My shirt, which is cheap but the only white one I had that was clean, is almost see-through when it is wet. If I took my jacket off, it would look like I’ve entered for a wet T-shirt competition! Whereas this might fit in with the flip-flops and shorts, I think it’s just too much.
We get to the church. I tell F that I will stay at the back. F says that he will too. But then he goes to the front. He waves me forward when he gets there. I go to sit in the row behind him, on the far left-hand side. He waves me to come and sit by him. We are on the front row. They don’t seem to do etiquette like we do in the UK. Next to me sits F. Next to him sits a guy who is the cousin-in-law of E – he who is wearing flip-flops and shorts!
They do a mass. The uncle-priest appears, dressed like a priest (until now he had been wearing a suit) and assists the big, fat priest in the mass. I don’t understand anything. I stand up when others stand up. I sit down when others sit down. I don’t do the crossing thing they do. I don’t do the “taking communion” thing (although most people didn’t do it, including the chief mourners). Let’s be honest, I don’t really do the “religion” thing either it, in my mind, being just a way to “control” people. I think: I must tell F that I don’t want a religious ceremony (if it can be avoided) when I die. The big, fat priest often wipes his face with his handkerchief. I think: it would help if he lost some weight and, probably, if he ate a lot less pasta! No, I’m not religious at all.
The whole thing finishes and the coffin is led out by the big, fat priest. Everyone, trundles out. F comments about how the church is full of “old people”. I point out that, as the person who has died is old, (not that old, mind you) the church is filled with a lot of friends who will be of similar age. this is the way it is.
Outside, the sun is blazing down. The people mill around, chatting, greeting each other, etc. I tell F that I’m going for a cigarette – it’s been a couple of hours since I last had one. Also, although I don’t tell him this, I can’t stay in this suit, in this sun. And, anyway, I don’t speak Italian well enough. He tells me to go and wait by the car and gives me the keys. I go and, in the shade by the car, have several cigarettes. Eventually he arrives together with his sister and his cousin-from-Sicily – who is a nun.
We drive to the cemetery. There is a lot of discussion about meeting up with the hearse at some point. But no one can agree about what was supposed to happen. The gates to the cemetery seem to be locked. We hang around. Eventually, someone (the nun or his sister) goes and asks someone. It seems the hearse is already inside! With all the people.
We go in. The cemetery is huge. Cemeteries, here, are HUGE! There are, of course, the usual plots in the ground. But here they also do walls with, what I have always assumed, ashes inside. We walk down to where all the people are. In fact, the whole coffin is inside a hole in one of these walls. It is a tomb. instead of soil being piled in on top of the coffin, the hole is being bricked up! Bricking up the hole takes a whole lot longer than piling soil on top. I think how wonderful it is that the bricklayer is a woman, her long, blond hair tied up in a super-long pony tail. She works fast and hard under the glare of the mourners. In the meantime, I position myself under a tree, for the shade.
At one point, the bricklayer turns around. I see that she is, in fact, a man. He finishes the wall. F explains that, eventually, after some years, the bones of several relatives are collected together and put in one tomb. For now there is some sort of temporary (I suppose) “tomb stone” fixed to the outside. the flowers are placed around outside. This has taken so much longer than a burial in the ground that a majority of the people have excused themselves at some point or another. I don’t, of course, since I need F to take me back to the car which I’ve left at his house. Several people (his dad, his mum, etc.) ask if I’m staying. I explain that I’m going back to Milan. I have work the next day. And the dogs. And, of course, F didn’t want me to stay. That way he has the freedom to do the things he needs to do without being concerned about me.
At one point the wife of the shorts and flip-flops man asks F if he’ll go for a cigarette with her. Instead, he says that I will go. He’s right, of course, I will always sneak off for a fag. (Note to Gail – that’s the British term for a cigarette and not what you think!)
Of course, she speaks no English but somehow we manage to talk about her son (who has grown a lot in the last 12 months) and the dogs and some other stuff.
Then we go back and I go back to my place in the shade. They finish the bricking in and the laying out of the the flowers. By now it’s really only family that are left. We start to walk back. E, linking arms with me and F. We pass some graves of people that I don’t know but I know about and some graves of people that I don’t know and don’t really know about but they are related somehow.
Then out. We say our goodbyes. The mood is lighter but there isn’t the relief that a wake would have given them. In F’s car, besides me, are the uncle-priest, F’s sister and the cousin-nun. It feels quite weird to be so close to them without any escape (yes, I really DO have a problem with religion.)
We drop the uncle-priest off first. I get out of the car to shake his hand. He says, “bye-bye.” I wonder how much of the conversation between F and me he understands.
Next, we drop off the cousin-nun and his sister. Then he drops me at his house. He wants to go and see E and make sure she’s all right so he doesn’t stay.
I drive home and the dogs are pleased to see me. After I’ve taken them out, I go for a pizza and a few beers. Alcohol is essential after a funeral. It’s like saying, “….. and ….. relax!” Though it would have been better with people who had known her. Then they could have told some great stories and we could have laughed and remembered her fondly and the love that people had for her would have taken the edge off the fact that she was no longer with us.
I must remember to tell F that, when I die, I want a big fucking party – with food and alcohol and music and, if people want, dancing. And I hope, very much, for some really great and funny stories
Anyway, this was another “first”, and I don’t get so many of those, these days. Hence the long post.