Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Festival of the Dead

by Musetta Joyce   © 2013

On November 2 each year in Sicily children wake up to find their stockings filled with pieces of charcoal if they have been misbehaving, and rock hard biscuits made specially to look like dry bones, and amazingly realistic imitation fruits made from marzipan, if they have been good. Other more expensive presents are often given by extra generous parents to extra well behaved children: presents that are supposed to have been left by the Dead. The more expensive surprises not always bringing the happiest outcomes; for instance on one occasion a wealthy neighbour's 'dead' gave a motorbike to the sixteen-year-old son who, while riding it for the first time, crashed and was killed instantly. 
For the few days of the festa dei morti the cemeteries are packed with relatives bringing flowers to their deceased loved ones. They stay around the tombs for hours, chatting to neighbours, often bringing food to sustain them. For our yearly visit as my husband instead didn't want to meet up with anyone he might have to make small talk to, we went to pay our respects with bunches of flowers a few days before the actual festa.
The cemetery in Messina is enormous; it is enclosed with high walls and accessed during opening hours by a couple of guarded gates. It is overflowing with tombs of every description; only a few are underground like those in the English section, the only one neglected and overgrown with weeds. Those who can afford them have elaborate little chapels where their dead are slotted into cement and kept under lock and key. For thieves are rampant, stealing not only flowers but copper and brass fittings as the majority of coffins are slotted into walls, some twelve metres high, each with a small marble slab giving the name, birth and date of death as well as a photograph in a tiny oval frame, a brass holder for a vase and an electric bulb. Relatives pay a yearly electricity bill and, in order to put flowers in the vases, have to climb a mobile ladder while clutching a plastic bottle of water as well as the flowers, which are usually chrysanthemums or carnations. Out of season roses and lilies are more expensive but popular too, and as we pass by, we see many carefully cleaning the tombs and emptying dead flowers in preparation for the invasion of critics, for the bella figura goes beyond the grave. The whole cemetery has an air of activity and a scent of various flowers.
Unlike the smell when my mother-in law died and her coffin was placed in the entrance hall, where there were dozens of others awaiting burial.
Funerals in Sicily once began with the wake in the house of the deceased, but there is no 'Removal' ceremony, as we know it. The funeral begins with Mass in the local church and continues with the procession to the cemetery. Inside the gate of the cemetery the nails of the coffin are removed to allow the public to view the dead person for the last time. (No make-up added). Then everyone goes home. No final burial. No party. No consoling gathering of friends and relations. 
Our task this year is to find my late brother-in-law's resting place which, following directions, turns out, thankfully, to be on the ground floor. But there is no marble slab yet installed, as the family hadn't programmed for his sudden death. Only his name scratched on the cement tells us where to put our offering of flowers, which we stick in a plastic bottle of water.
Around the corner we find a new high wall with very small square holes, some of which are filled and adorned with names, details and photos.
'The coffins are pulled out and the bones exhumed after a certain period of time,' my husband explains. 'It's a question of space. In Milan it's sooner but here it's a hundred years at least before they are moved.'
'Well, that can't be so, for look at these dates, they're quite recent. I bet they must be cremated. It would make more sense, don't you think?'
Later we ask an old friend whose wife has recently passed away and discover that the nearest crematoria are in Salerno, near Naples and Palermo. But the latter hasn't been functioning for some time. Why? Well, cremation would eliminate a lot of profitable business, wouldn't it?
Next we head for my in-law's resting place. When they were still young they had started paying the local church for a place in a sort of condominium high-rise edifice. 
Their building is called 'The Resurrection' and, like many other similar constructions, it is kept locked. There is a basement, ground floor, first and second floor. On each floor there are five layers of tombs on each side with a ladder to access them. My mother-in-law had always said she only wanted fresh flowers, but when we find a nice bunch of plastic roses we know her daughter has been in the summertime, for she lives far away. As we carefully add our few blooms bought from one of the dozens of flower vendors at the gates I realise how soon they would wither and wish I had brought some bougainvillea from home which looks pretty even when dry.
Last year, while leaving the 'Resurrection', my husband heard sounds of distress from a neighbouring high-rise 'apartment' block. An elderly couple had got themselves locked inside and were getting frantic.
'Don't worry,' my husband told them, 'I'll get you out.' Off he went to the gatekeeper. But the man had no spare keys and things were looking bad until, luckily, a passing journalist, taking advantage of the dramatic situation, called the police and the fire brigade, who managed to break the lock and rescue the couple – and get a scoop on the Gazzetta del Sud the following morning.
Curious to see the actual festa effect, I visit our local cemetery on November 2. I was hoping to find the little chapel where our unlucky friend (another story) Maria Fortunata was buried. I don't manage to find it. Instead I enjoy the air of festivity. There are, of course flowers everywhere sending their scent in homage to the defunct and just a little cloying; the piped (religious) music a just a little too loud, and, as dusk rapidly gave way to dark as it is wont to do here, the lamps on each tomb are switched on to gleam with a warm glow that is – almost - welcoming.
My husband doesn't want to be a part of all this. He wants to be buried with my people; just like the old Irish proposal. He wants to order a marble slab with our names and our pictures to be placed there. He has even chosen the photos: Me in a meadow full of wild Sicilian flowers, he in a field full of wild Texan flowers. Romantic, yes?
No, I don't agree, and we have yet another argument.

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