Italian funeral traditions in Italy remain constant, while Italian immigrants in other countries may find that they also follow many of the same customs. Other traditions that are still in place today began due to poverty, cultural rituals, and superstitious beliefs.
The Italian culture is very ritualistic and tends towards theatrics during major events. Death and funerals are a major event in the Italian culture, but most Italian funerals are times of gravity and dignity for everyone involved without any real theatrics. Superstitious beliefs in the Italian culture about death are varied, but in the past there was a fear that a dead person's soul never really leaves the earth and they might wish to come back. Different rituals were performed to allow the deceased to leave the earth successfully, such as burying them with their favorite objects like cigarettes, books, jewelry, photographs, and more. Many Italians do not speak of the dead once the period of mourning is over, as they do not wish to summons them back to earth.
Italian Funeral Traditions
For the most part, Italian funeral traditions are consistent with Catholicism as it is the major religion of Italy.
Italian funerals are traditionally open for everyone in the village or town to attend. Sometimes, a poster is prepared of the deceased. These posters were hung throughout the town to alert people of the deceased's passing and details of when the funeral will be. Today, in the United States for example, an obituary in the newspaper or a small pamphlet will be handed out at the funeral in place of posters.
Neighbors and friends begin to bring food over to the deceased's family as soon as they hear the news. The types of food they will bring can be anything from bowls of fruit, desserts, wine, and casseroles. There is usually so much food the family will have plenty to offer visiting guests or freeze for later.
In the past, the family of a wealthy deceased person would pay for mourners to wail at the gravesite. Today, there is a period of mourning, but wailing is rarely part of the funeral as dignity and respect is important to many Italians.
A large majority of Italians were, and still are, Catholic so many Italian funeral traditions are consistent with Catholicism. This will include the last rites, the vigil or prayer ceremony, a funeral liturgy, and the proper Mass being performed. Pall bearers are a common practice in Italian funerals. In some cases, the funeral service will end with family members or friends speaking from the heart about the deceased.
Mourners and attendants who follow Italian funeral traditions normally wear all black to funerals. Modern Italian immigrants' spouses do not wear black for extended periods of time, but in the past that was traditional.
Closed or Open Casket
Traditionally in Italian and Catholic funerals there is an open casket. It is a common practice to kiss the cheek or forehead of the deceased body in the Italian culture. Even children will be encouraged to touch the hand or kiss the cheek of the deceased to show respect.
Funeral Procession to the Gravesite
Historically, people attending an Italian funeral would walk by foot in a funeral procession to the gravesite. The casket would either be in a horse drawn carriage or hearse. Today the funeral procession to the gravesite is similar to modern customs in which mourners follow the hearse in vehicles.
Italian funeral traditions continue at the cemetery as mourners gather around the gravesite. In some cases each person may walk up to the casket and toss a handful of dirt on the casket or place a single rose on top. Being buried in the ground is rare in Italy due to lack of space. Instead, graves are stacked and placed in concrete mausoleums. Italian cemeteries are like park grounds where people can wander around and have picnics. If you are lucky enough to have a burial site that is in the ground, your family will attend and take care of the gravesite for centuries to come.
Though Italian funeral traditions began in old Italy, some of them are still present today in modern Italy and throughout the world where Italians live. Following are some websites about Italian funeral customs that you may find interesting.