Cardella: Mourning in South Philly

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My family always had a unique reaction to death. Dad would never say a bad word about someone who’d died. Never. No matter how evil a life a person had led, in dad’s mind, death cloaked them in virtue. He literally never uttered an unflattering remark if the person were deceased. Dad would bow his head and mutter something like “a bonanamo” (I haven’t been able to find this word in a dictionary. It may be guttural slang for the deceased. It may not be a word at all. I associate the word with a brand of turkish taffy I ate in my youth. But what does Turkish Taffy have to do with the dead?). For whatever reason, if you died, forever after dad referred to you as “a bonanamo.” Being among the dead — whether you were St. Francis of Assisi or a serial killer — you became beyond reproach.

Dad had other quirks concerning death. He would not sleep in a certain position. He believed that if your feet were pointed in a certain direction, you were in for bad luck. He never stayed more than 15 minutes at a funeral service. Always hovered near the back of the funeral parlor. He had a fear of being buried alive so he requested that he be cremated and never be viewed in an open casket. My mother reneged on both accounts after he died. Mom had her own views and she took advantage of being the survivor. As mom would say, “Death is for the living.”

Dad continued to be amazed that dead actors could live forever through their films. If you watched an old movie with dad, he would continually point out all the actors in it who’d already died. Both mom and dad truly believed that no matter how old or sick you were, you were always too young to have died. Dad: “Maxie was what, 95? Dead before his time.” Mom: “You never know when your time is up.” Maxie could’ve had a bad heart while living on dialysis. But poor Maxie, we hardly knew ye.

Mom’s side of the family were experts on the etiquette of mourning. The women wore black for at least a year after someone in the family died. The deceased could have been a third cousin they only saw on Leap Year, but he or she was mourned the right way.

The black mourning outfits would appear as if out of nowhere for all the sisters. The men seemed to be exempt from the official dress rules of mourning. In families whose kids were already grown, everyone stopped watching television as part of the mourning process. Even Douglas Edwards and the News was off limits. Newspapers were left unread. Mourning meant full-blown abstention from the pleasures offered to the non-grieiving world.

But the children in the family were not to be deprived. Life went on for them. Howdy Doody was still a fixture on the TV no matter who had died. Christmas was also still celebrated for the kids’ sake.

My family members who were in deep mourning avoided visiting the parts of the family that continued on with life’s entertainments. The burning question remained — was it appropriate to celebrate Christ’s birthday in the face of Aunt Millie’s death or did her death justify snuffing out Christ’s birthday candles? The religious question was never really resolved in our house, much like the Lenten question — was a hot cross bun cake an acceptable treat as part of the Lenten fast?

Our family viewings and funerals were always a bit messy, but passionate. At least one of my aunts always flung herself onto the casket. That wasn’t so bad, but when the same aunt tried to plunge into the newly-dug grave, you had to hold your breath for fear she would succeed.

Luckily, at every family funeral, one of the funeral director’s staff was always ready to catch her before she fell into the hole in the ground. I think she went 0 for 6 on dive attempts.

As if silent-grave diving wasn’t enough, this aunt used to shout stuff as she flung her body into the air. “Oh Vito, you’ll be playing gin rummy with Rosa now!” Rosa was his wife who had died 20 years before Vito decided to join her in death.

As part of their worship of the death process, the women would always admire the corpse in the casket. “She looks good. Doesn’t she look good? She really looks good. They (insert funeral director’s name) do such good work. Carmen, I want to be laid out here when I die. She looks good, doesn’t she?”

And there was my mother busy inspecting the floral arrangements to see how ours compared with the others sent by family and friends. If the deceased liked to gamble, someone always sent a bouquet of flowers in the shape of dice or a floral clock marking the time of death.

Back in the day, the funeral director always hung a crepe outside the door of the family of the deceased. As a kid, I always viewed the crepe as a kind of marker that punished the family for having suffered a death. Like a scarlet “A.” on a woman who committed adultery.

Families and friends always act as if death made the survivors extra hungry. If someone died in your family, the rest of the family sent a pot of roast beef or catered sandwiches.

Oh — and there is one rule that may still hold. If you’re attending a viewing in one of the South Broad Street funeral parlors, no matter whether you’re religious or not, you either attend very early or very late to escape the priest saying the Rosary.