The official records state that Letizia Scotti Muro passed away from Lobar pneumonia in 1921. She was 32 years old and left behind a husband and five children. According to the death certificate, Letizia was interred two days after she passed away. Our relative has provided some of the stories about Letizia’s wake that were handed down in his family.
Uncle Sammy and I compare Letizia’s wake to one held in our immediate family 22 years after her passing. Our goal is to find what patterns persisted in Wilmerding, PA and Brooklyn N.Y. that have survived, changed or fallen out of use.
Letizia Scotti Muro was:
–Sammy’s maternal Grandmother
–EmilyAnn’s maternal Great-Grandmother
Letizia’s Wake in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania
What follows is a retelling of the events shared by one of our relatives who got the story from his mother…
The family held the wake for Letizia in the apartment which the Muro family rented. The body was cleaned, dressed and laid to rest in a casket which was placed on top of a table. Chairs were brought to the place where the casket was. Relatives came to visit in the evening and some stayed throughout the night.
There were many bouquets and wreaths near the coffin. One little girl wanted to see Letizia and walked up to the coffin. She remembered being over powered by the fragrance of the flowers. The memory of the funeral came back anytime she was near a very fragrant bouquet or garden. Because the memory associated with the fragrance of flowers was not a happy one, the girl grew up to dislike bouquets of fragrant flowers.
Funeral Customs in the Italian Immigrant Community
This summary is based on our readings about Italian-American funeral customs described in “Funeral Customs” in The Italian-American Experience: An Encyclopedia and a research paper entitled “The Italian-American Funeral: Persistence through Change.” The links are given in the Resources section.
- The funeral customs of the peasants from Southern Italy were very simple: a wake of 1 or 2 days at home followed by mass in church and burial at a cemetery. The upper classes followed a similar schedule but the expression of their grief and memorialization of the departed were elaborate. Marching bands accompanied the procession to the church and sometimes professional mourners were hired to add their tears and cries at the gravesite. A great deal of attention was given to the monument which could include elaborate carving and statuary.
- When the Southern Italian peasants came to America they brought with them many folk practices concerning treatment of the departed spirit. For example, after returning from the funeral it was considered bad luck to visit someone who had not attended the funeral. It was believed that the household which received a visitor who had been in the presence of death could bring bad luck or sickness with them. It was also important to speed the spirit’s journey into the afterlife so masses and prayers were offered for its repose. The family also tended the gravesite and went to visit the cemetery on November 2nd, which is All Souls Day in the Catholic calendar.
- As the immigrants saw an improvement in their finances and quality of life they began to plan for more elaborate funeral and burial arrangements. The customs of the Italian upper classes were adapted among the immigrant and first generation Italian-American families. More elaborate floral arrangements and monuments were purchased. The focus shifted from pacifying and honoring the spirit of the departed and moved on to the social message an elaborate wake and burial conveyed. It meant that now the immigrant family and their descendants had the means to afford a high class send off. In effect, the Italian peasant succeeded in rising up to the customs of the upper class from his home town back in Italy.
- After the practice of embalming a body became widespread, more wakes were held in funeral parlors. The focus also shifted. The primary interest was now in the display of the body and the setting in the funeral home. The richer the presentation was the more the family was considered to have arrived at a higher social standing and financial level. This led to competition amongst some Italian-American families to outdo one another when interring family members. This is the reason why many Catholic cemeteries had large monuments placed over the burial plot. In time many cemeteries had to create a set of standards which plot holders had to adhere to when choosing a monument for the plot. This was an effort to prevent the crowding and lack of overall visual appeal the earlier decades of such excessive ornamentation had created on the cemetery grounds.
Discussion with Uncle Sammy on Sunday, September 20, 2015 at 11:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Letizia’s daughter Josie married Sabato Serrapede in 1930. Their 3 year old son Gerald passed away in 1941. The wake was held in the apartment where they lived in Brooklyn, New York. Burial occurred the day after the wake. Relatives kept a vigil through the night while candles burned in the living room.
There wasn’t any marching band or professional mourners at Gerald’s funeral. After the wake only the immediate family attended the burial.
Letizia and Gerald are buried with very simple monuments. There is none of the ornate lettering of larger monuments popular amongst the Italian immigrant community. Rather than spend money on stone angels and crosses, the families used their resources to pay off the plot and expenses associated with the funeral.
One custom we remember as persisting down to the modern day is that of avoiding a visit to anyone’s house after attending a funeral. Many of the services we have attended include a meal afterwards in a restaurant. During this time memories are shared and encouragement offered on making it through the days ahead.
Our family still believes in the power of intercessory prayer, prayer for the spirits in purgatory and masses offered for the repose of the dead. The masses are offered on the anniversary of a birthday, the day of passing or on a holy day.
Josie and her daughter Emily Leatrice were very concerned about the services and interment arrangements they would have. They each had pre-plans which enabled them to pay off the cost of the entire service. In a pre-plan a package deal is worked out and an agreement signed with the funeral home. Monthly installment payments are made until the total is paid in full.
We have created memorials for Letizia and Gerald which you are welcome to visit. Any prayers or cyber tokens are much appreciated.
The Italian-American Experience: An Encyclopedia
edited by Salvatore J. LaGumina, Frank J. Cavaioli, Salvatore Primeggia, Joseph A. Varacalli
Google Books http://tinyurl.com/npbuxuq
“The Italian-American Funeral: Persistence through Change” By: Elizabeth Mathias
Note: The author wrote about the customs in the Italian community of Philadelphia, PA