Dolly was crying while kneeling at her mother’s coffin. She had been quiet enough when she walked slowly from her chair to the padded rail and knelt down to pray, but then she started to cry, with a sob that grew in volume and pitch until it filled the entire funeral parlor and commanded everyone’s attention. And it was more than just crying. It was a miserable piercing sound, frequently punctuated by loud expressions of grief. “My mother, my best friend is gone,” she wailed, “How could God do this to me? I did nothing to deserve such misery. Mama, what will I do without you? My life is over! Why did you leave me?” Then she leaned forward to kiss the corpse, while crying louder than ever. The women in the row of seats nearest the coffin looked on approvingly, and several shed tears of their own, but some of the male relatives were clearly uneasy. They knew that heart-rending drama was a part of funerals and that Dolly had a pronounced inclination to view her entire life in tragic terms. They were worried because they were not sure they could handle her at graveside.

Uncle Vito went to Dolly and put his hand on her arm in an attempt to quiet her and lead her away. He succeeded in getting her to stand, but this only increased her agitation. She turned on him and shouted through her sobs. “You! You were not good to her; you were a bad husband! You should have treated her like a queen because she was the best in the world. Instead you showed her no respect and just did whatever you wanted.” They faced each other; he was calm, slim and elegant in a perfectly tailored gray suit, seemingly ignoring her abuse; she was semi-hysterical, short and fat, in the mandatory black uniform of a serious mourner. After one more outburst, she went back to her seat, the first in a row along the wall on the left, reserved for those closest to the deceased.

It was the first night of the wake and Aunt Filomena was properly laid out in her coffin with crossed hands holding a small prayer book bound in white leather and a rosary of ivory beads and silver links precisely arranged over and through her fingers, one of which displayed her wedding ring. Her hair was a luminous gray, fine and thin and perfectly combed in an upsweep, and her head rested on a small white pillow edged in lace. Lipstick and rouge, the embalmer’s art and the fact of death combined to give her face a waxy, artificial look so, while this surely was Aunt Filomena, there was no doubt that she was no longer Aunt Filomena. Her light blue dress contrasted beautifully with the luxurious white silk lining of the coffin and its open lid. The coffin itself was a thing of splendor, made of a dark wood so highly polished it was a mirror, with heavy bright brass handles and rails on each side for the pallbearers.

Filomena’s aunts and nieces and cousins were gathered near Dolly at the chief mourner’s row. They had all arrived at about the same time and, like other new arrivals, they had signed the guest book and placed an offering, of money or a Mass card or both, in a sealed envelope on the nearby table. Each of them had taken several copies of the memorial cards piled near the guest book. These were about twice the size of a business card, with a brightly colored picture of Jesus on one side and Aunt Filomena’s name, dates of birth and death, and a short prayer, printed on the back.

The women had clustered in the vestibule like a flock of grounded birds and, though they were a varied lot, they looked alike because they all wore black dresses, with long sleeves, high, square necks and skirts that reached below the knees, along with black stockings and plain black shoes. The lack of color and the gray, dismal expressions made them a collective visual dirge.

Only one of the sisters was older than Aunt Filomena and, like her, was overweight to the point of obesity. The other three were in their early sixties, had kept rather good figures and unlike the older sisters, had been quite beautiful in their youth. The sisters had never been particularly close and in fact shared some bitter history, but now they were quiet and cordial, temporarily united by their loss. The group included three elderly cousins and three nieces, whose good looks were clearly derived from Filomena’s younger sisters and could not be completely veiled by their grim clothes and lack of makeup.

The uniforms of mourning diminished their differences, which became trivial in the face of their common dress and manner and their immersion in the ritual of mourning. Once in the funeral parlor, the sisters took their places in the side row with Dolly while the others sat in nearby chairs; but they still managed to look like a coherent band.

Other women were there: friends and more distant relatives, including my mother and her older sister Mary. Filomena was my father’s sister so my mother’s presence was obligatory although she had never gotten along well with her in-laws. My Aunt Mary had come for my mother’s sake, and because she felt obliged to attend funerals, which must have satisfied some hidden need. She never missed a funeral that she could possible justify attending, and she always contributed valiantly to the general mourning. She usually managed to secretly hide a few coins in the coffin. Her stealth was effective because, while we all knew about it, she was seldom actually seen doing it. The persistence of that ancient myth is remarkable, but she was a Sicilian and the ancient Greek culture had once pervaded that island and she was repeating a version of the payment to Charon. It did not matter that she did not understand the meaning of the ritual; it was just something she had to do.

As many men as women were present, but the women were visible and dominant, while the men seemed more like spectators than participants. This funeral, like most Italian funerals, was a women’s affair.

As visitors arrived, they went to Dolly, her father, son and sisters, along the row against the wall, to express their condolences. They then took seats in the general mourner’s area. The chairs were straight backed, but comfortably upholstered in cream and tan colors, which, along with the tan rug, made the funeral parlor a little less dismal.

Dolly was slightly unkempt. There had been an afternoon session and she had maintained a somewhat lonely vigil beside the corpse with only her father, son and a few neighbors for company. As the ritual progressed, she would look a little more tired, her hair would get a bit more undone, and her dress would be slightly more wrinkled until, at the cemetery, she would be completely disheveled. This would be confirmation that her sense of loss was true and deep.

Dolly would sometimes surrender to her grief, particularly when embracing a close female relative, calling on the world to witness her pain. She was not the only one to indulge in public weeping and exclamations of sorrow. Sometimes one of the sisters or a cousin would also break into tears and cry loudly enough to be heard throughout the funeral parlor, and sometimes one outburst would set off a number of others. So Dolly was not alone, but she was the most frequent and the most passionate. This was not remarkable in any way; the same performance was played out at other Italian funerals. The women took death as a personal insult, evidence that the universe conspired against them by imposing an affliction from which they should be exempt. This attitude contrasted strongly with that of the men, who were stern realists, more accepting of fate and less prone to tragic theater.

The three men in the front row were concerned about the possibility of an embarrassment at the grave. The ancient theatrical excesses are no longer acted out and now the casket is buried after the services are over and all the mourners have left the cemetery. But in those days the ritual was not complete until the casket was actually in the ground. Occasionally someone, usually a mother or a daughter, would be so overcome that she would try to throw herself into the grave as the coffin was being lowered. The attempts at restraint were not always successful. One of the anxious men was Dolly’s husband Joe, who sat in the first row because Dolly did not deem him important enough to occupy a chief mourner’s chair along the wall. The other two sitting near Joe were relatives and the three of them would have the responsibility for keeping Dolly from jumping in, or getting her out again if she did manage to fight them off and follow her mother.

The real problem was Dolly’s physical configuration. The huge circumference of her hips and belly made her so wide and massive, and gave her such a low center of gravity that, if she were sitting on the floor there was no way she could get up by herself. Her legs were thick and strong, with muscles that were well developed from carrying her bulk. They provided a firm foundation to support the substantial superstructure above, but her arms simply did not have the strength to help with the job. The men knew it was absolutely necessary to keep her from jumping because, once in the grave, it would be nearly impossible for them to get a sufficient purchase to pull her out. If they did not grab her strongly enough at the right moment, she could break loose and dive onto the coffin, so they had to be vigilant.

An automatic process of separation of husbands and wives had started with their arrivals as the men drifted to the far end of the vestibule or into the sitting room to greet each other or to have a last cigarette. But now, in the funeral parlor, the sexes were not so sharply separated. The men did not have the dismal death-and-despair aura of the women, but they were somber enough. They all wore fresh white shirts, black ties and black shoes, but not all the suits were black. Some were dark blue and even gray, which slightly modified the impression of a uniform mass of dark bereavement.

New arrivals went past the chief mourner’s row, greeting each of them, offering condolences, exchanging kisses or handshakes and scraps of appropriate conversation. And then they went to the casket to pray for the soul of Aunt Filomena. My mother and I were behind Aunt Mary in the procession and I saw her slip a coin under the small lace pillow. I don’t think anyone else noticed, but I saw it because I was looking for it. I was not the youngest child at the funeral, but I was not old enough to avoid following my mother through mourner’s row. We slowly passed through the gauntlet and then knelt on the padded rail. The whole matter was repugnant and I wished I could get out of there. The sight of the corpse, the occasional comment on how good and true to life she looked, the women who seemed to enjoy their sorrow, the silent and resigned men, were all repulsive

The flowers that were not able to mitigate the atmosphere of gloom were everywhere. Huge sprays and wreaths and blankets and vases were crowded on each side of the coffin, along the sides of the room, and almost hid the podium against the right hand wall. And they wore banners of purple, silver, blue, maroon or white, proclaiming sympathy and kinship: “From Your Loving Sisters” or “In Memory of Our Dear Aunt” and so on. Asters, mums, carnations, lilies, tiger lilies, snapdragons, and roses, roses, roses, roses; red and pink and white and yellow. The scent was strong — an amalgamated oppressive aroma in which no single species could be detected, but which contained the power of all flowers. It was a force urging me to be gone and finally my mother completed her endless obligation and I followed her out, escaping to the vestibule.

The women’s crying gradually died down. People who had not seen each other for some time became reacquainted, brought each other up to date on their activities, and a degree of sociability gradually replaced the dark aura of mourning. Proud statements of the accomplishments of family members, the marvels of growing grandchildren, graduations, recent marriages, and new jobs were exchanged with an air of total amiability along with regrets that they only saw each other at weddings and funerals, and promises to get together more often. Soon there was a pleasant buzz, not only in the vestibule and sitting room, but also in the funeral parlor. Some quiet laughter could even be heard and the wake became more than just a shared experience of grief.

A bell was ringing. It was not very loud but it was insistent. Everyone took seats in the funeral parlor as an attendant dragged out the podium hiding behind the flowers and placed it directly in front of the coffin. The priest had arrived and the evening services were about to begin. He was a tall, thin Italian and he started the service with some unremarkable prayers. When he referred directly to Aunt Filomena, describing her devotion to church and family and how she lived a life of service to others (none of which was quite true), Dolly started. Her crying was not loud, but it was obvious, and I started to think about the possibilities at the cemetery. My guess was that she would try desperately to jump into the grave and might even succeed in spite of the best efforts of the three wardens.

At last the priest was done. He bestowed a final benediction, and as they left their seats the occupants of the funeral parlor drifted into the vestibule and were transformed from an assembly of mourners into individuals. Having done their duty, friends and acquaintances left for home and would not be back, but most relatives returned for the next day’s session, which was a repeat performance, except that different friends were there and Dolly was a little more rumpled. Again, the number of people in attendance in the evening was much larger than in the afternoon, again the flowers were oppressive, again the priest gave a boring performance and again there was a transformation to sociability.

The next stage was the funeral itself. The beginning event was a final brief service on the following morning, led by the same priest, and a final procession past the coffin of those who wanted to offer a last prayer and farewell. Then the funeral director took over. He had been an inconspicuous background figure up to now, making sure that all physical arrangements, such as chairs, flowers, podium, envelope table and guest book, were in order. Occasionally he would walk through the vestibule, or look into the sitting rooms off the vestibule to assure people that someone was in charge. But now he was no longer a minor character; he was the master of ceremonies. First he announced that Aunt Filomena would be transported to her last Mass and told everyone that they should leave for the church immediately. Then he convened the pallbearers to instruct them in the proper mode of carrying the casket and the best way to negotiate it into the hearse, out of the hearse, up the church steps, onto a wheeled carrier, back down the church steps, back into the hearse, out of the hearse again and to the gravesite. He was very precise with these instructions because it would never do to make a mistake while carrying the casket. To make sure that everything went well one of the director’s assistants stayed close to the pallbearers. They performed their task without a hitch.

The service was a High Mass. It lasted over an hour and was a fine illustration of the brilliant applied psychology by which the Church captured and held the souls of the faithful. The church itself was a work of art with bas-relief representations of the Stations of the Cross, polished light-oak pews, a high Gothic nave and a large dazzling white altar decorated with white and gold linens, white lilies and red roses, all magically enhanced by the bright morning light which was colored, refracted and scattered throughout the church as it streamed through the stained glass windows.

The priest sang the Mass in a smooth baritone and the choir, dominated by female voices, was a striking counterpoint. Flowers and censer combined to give the air an exotic bouquet and the overall impression was one of serenity, of being at peace, and of being in touch with something profound. The divine seduction was complete.

The guests had found their own way to the church but after the Mass they were carefully organized by the funeral director and his assistants. The hearse was first in line followed by a limousine containing the mourners-of-honor. Several automobiles holding other close relatives of the deceased were behind the limo and after them came a line of cars of no particular rank, all of them urged close together by the assistant directors and all of them with their headlights turned on. The procession preempted the right of way at every intersection and traffic light, but it was slow and took over thirty minutes to get to the cemetery. After passing through large black iron gates, we parked on the edge of the road close to the open grave.

The funeral director himself opened the back door of the hearse and again instructed the pallbearers, who properly grasped the brass rails and carried the coffin to the gravesite where it was placed on a sling, which would lower it into the ground after the service.

Dolly would not wait. Displaying a surprising agility, she was out of the limousine just as the hearse door was opened, and started toward the coffin. She was quickly flanked by two of the guards while her husband tried to keep her calm. Joe’s efforts seemed to work and Dolly walked slowly and quietly to the coffin, which was now level with the ground, suspended over the open grave. A good deal of attention was focused on Dolly because at least some action was expected during the burial.

It took some time for the cars to empty and for the guests to get properly arranged so the service could get started. There was a row of chairs near the grave for Dolly, her father and son, and for Aunt Filomena’s sisters. Some additional chairs were provided for the more elderly mourners, but the others had to stand.

For a time the ritual was uneventful. The priest began with a blessing, went on to the overlong prayers and came to the point at which he commended Aunt Filomena to God, mentioning her name and those loved ones she left behind. As the priest started in on this final section of the service, Dolly became more restive and started a low, soft sobbing and, just as he finished, and just as the coffin was being lowered, Dolly released a high-pitched wail, called for her mother, begged her not to leave, rose from her chair and started toward the coffin, screaming “I don’t want to live, I am coming with you.” Joe and his two helpers tried to constrain her, but Dolly’s strength was unexpectedly magnified and she was aided by the substantial inertial mass of her moving bulk, which resisted the efforts to stop her. Dolly was making progress and the situation was getting out of hand. Her thick legs pushed mightily against the ground and her arms were flailing at the guards while she continued to cry and protest. It was a remarkably violent expression of grief.

The contagion of sorrow spread to some of the other women, especially Aunt Filomena’s sisters and my Aunt Mary. They did not rise and try to follow Dolly to the grave, but they sobbed and keened with a variety of tones and volumes, providing a fitting aural backdrop to Dolly’s performance.

She was still struggling and looked a mess. Her gray hair was loose and uncombed, the same black dress was now completely wrinkled, and the rest of her was equally unkempt. Her eyes were red from the continual crying and her face was puffy and, because of her exertions, it had lost the funeral-home pallor and turned an unhealthy mottled pink.

Dolly was close to the edge of the grave. With experienced judgment, the workmen had stopped the coffin’s descent so it was only partway down but Dolly could still hurt herself and cause a serious retrieval problem if she jumped in. Joe was in front of her trying to push her back and his two assistants had her by the arms. Her girth defeated any attempts to grab her by the waist, and she was still moving forward. But then two other men rushed up to help and she was finally stopped and dragged back to her chair. A catastrophe that only a few really believed would occur had been averted.

The sounds of mourning gradually faded away, the funeral director announced that the family of the deceased invited everyone to lunch at a nearby restaurant, and the crowd gradually dispersed.

Aunt Filomena had been sent off in the most reverent and respectful manner possible.

Dolly was crying while kneeling at her mother’s coffin. She had been quiet enough when she walked slowly from her chair to the padded rail and knelt down to pray, but then she started to cry, with a sob that grew in volume and pitch until it filled the entire funeral parlor and commanded everyone’s attention. And it was more than just crying. It was a miserable piercing sound, frequently punctuated by loud expressions of grief. “My mother, my best friend is gone,” she wailed, “How could God do this to me? I did nothing to deserve such misery. Mama, what will I do without you? My life is over! Why did you leave me?” Then she leaned forward to kiss the corpse, while crying louder than ever. The women in the row of seats nearest the coffin looked on approvingly, and several shed tears of their own, but some of the male relatives were clearly uneasy. They knew that heart-rending drama was a part of funerals and that Dolly had a pronounced inclination to view her entire life in tragic terms. They were worried because they were not sure they could handle her at graveside.

Uncle Vito went to Dolly and put his hand on her arm in an attempt to quiet her and lead her away. He succeeded in getting her to stand, but this only increased her agitation. She turned on him and shouted through her sobs. “You! You were not good to her; you were a bad husband! You should have treated her like a queen because she was the best in the world. Instead you showed her no respect and just did whatever you wanted.” They faced each other; he was calm, slim and elegant in a perfectly tailored gray suit, seemingly ignoring her abuse; she was semi-hysterical, short and fat, in the mandatory black uniform of a serious mourner. After one more outburst, she went back to her seat, the first in a row along the wall on the left, reserved for those closest to the deceased.

It was the first night of the wake and Aunt Filomena was properly laid out in her coffin with crossed hands holding a small prayer book bound in white leather and a rosary of ivory beads and silver links precisely arranged over and through her fingers, one of which displayed her wedding ring. Her hair was a luminous gray, fine and thin and perfectly combed in an upsweep, and her head rested on a small white pillow edged in lace. Lipstick and rouge, the embalmer’s art and the fact of death combined to give her face a waxy, artificial look so, while this surely was Aunt Filomena, there was no doubt that she was no longer Aunt Filomena. Her light blue dress contrasted beautifully with the luxurious white silk lining of the coffin and its open lid. The coffin itself was a thing of splendor, made of a dark wood so highly polished it was a mirror, with heavy bright brass handles and rails on each side for the pallbearers.

Filomena’s aunts and nieces and cousins were gathered near Dolly at the chief mourner’s row. They had all arrived at about the same time and, like other new arrivals, they had signed the guest book and placed an offering, of money or a Mass card or both, in a sealed envelope on the nearby table. Each of them had taken several copies of the memorial cards piled near the guest book. These were about twice the size of a business card, with a brightly colored picture of Jesus on one side and Aunt Filomena’s name, dates of birth and death, and a short prayer, printed on the back.

The women had clustered in the vestibule like a flock of grounded birds and, though they were a varied lot, they looked alike because they all wore black dresses, with long sleeves, high, square necks and skirts that reached below the knees, along with black stockings and plain black shoes. The lack of color and the gray, dismal expressions made them a collective visual dirge.

Only one of the sisters was older than Aunt Filomena and, like her, was overweight to the point of obesity. The other three were in their early sixties, had kept rather good figures and unlike the older sisters, had been quite beautiful in their youth. The sisters had never been particularly close and in fact shared some bitter history, but now they were quiet and cordial, temporarily united by their loss. The group included three elderly cousins and three nieces, whose good looks were clearly derived from Filomena’s younger sisters and could not be completely veiled by their grim clothes and lack of makeup.

The uniforms of mourning diminished their differences, which became trivial in the face of their common dress and manner and their immersion in the ritual of mourning. Once in the funeral parlor, the sisters took their places in the side row with Dolly while the others sat in nearby chairs; but they still managed to look like a coherent band.

Other women were there: friends and more distant relatives, including my mother and her older sister Mary. Filomena was my father’s sister so my mother’s presence was obligatory although she had never gotten along well with her in-laws. My Aunt Mary had come for my mother’s sake, and because she felt obliged to attend funerals, which must have satisfied some hidden need. She never missed a funeral that she could possible justify attending, and she always contributed valiantly to the general mourning. She usually managed to secretly hide a few coins in the coffin. Her stealth was effective because, while we all knew about it, she was seldom actually seen doing it. The persistence of that ancient myth is remarkable, but she was a Sicilian and the ancient Greek culture had once pervaded that island and she was repeating a version of the payment to Charon. It did not matter that she did not understand the meaning of the ritual; it was just something she had to do.

As many men as women were present, but the women were visible and dominant, while the men seemed more like spectators than participants. This funeral, like most Italian funerals, was a women’s affair.

As visitors arrived, they went to Dolly, her father, son and sisters, along the row against the wall, to express their condolences. They then took seats in the general mourner’s area. The chairs were straight backed, but comfortably upholstered in cream and tan colors, which, along with the tan rug, made the funeral parlor a little less dismal.

Dolly was slightly unkempt. There had been an afternoon session and she had maintained a somewhat lonely vigil beside the corpse with only her father, son and a few neighbors for company. As the ritual progressed, she would look a little more tired, her hair would get a bit more undone, and her dress would be slightly more wrinkled until, at the cemetery, she would be completely disheveled. This would be confirmation that her sense of loss was true and deep.

Dolly would sometimes surrender to her grief, particularly when embracing a close female relative, calling on the world to witness her pain. She was not the only one to indulge in public weeping and exclamations of sorrow. Sometimes one of the sisters or a cousin would also break into tears and cry loudly enough to be heard throughout the funeral parlor, and sometimes one outburst would set off a number of others. So Dolly was not alone, but she was the most frequent and the most passionate. This was not remarkable in any way; the same performance was played out at other Italian funerals. The women took death as a personal insult, evidence that the universe conspired against them by imposing an affliction from which they should be exempt. This attitude contrasted strongly with that of the men, who were stern realists, more accepting of fate and less prone to tragic theater.

The three men in the front row were concerned about the possibility of an embarrassment at the grave. The ancient theatrical excesses are no longer acted out and now the casket is buried after the services are over and all the mourners have left the cemetery. But in those days the ritual was not complete until the casket was actually in the ground. Occasionally someone, usually a mother or a daughter, would be so overcome that she would try to throw herself into the grave as the coffin was being lowered. The attempts at restraint were not always successful. One of the anxious men was Dolly’s husband Joe, who sat in the first row because Dolly did not deem him important enough to occupy a chief mourner’s chair along the wall. The other two sitting near Joe were relatives and the three of them would have the responsibility for keeping Dolly from jumping in, or getting her out again if she did manage to fight them off and follow her mother.

The real problem was Dolly’s physical configuration. The huge circumference of her hips and belly made her so wide and massive, and gave her such a low center of gravity that, if she were sitting on the floor there was no way she could get up by herself. Her legs were thick and strong, with muscles that were well developed from carrying her bulk. They provided a firm foundation to support the substantial superstructure above, but her arms simply did not have the strength to help with the job. The men knew it was absolutely necessary to keep her from jumping because, once in the grave, it would be nearly impossible for them to get a sufficient purchase to pull her out. If they did not grab her strongly enough at the right moment, she could break loose and dive onto the coffin, so they had to be vigilant.

An automatic process of separation of husbands and wives had started with their arrivals as the men drifted to the far end of the vestibule or into the sitting room to greet each other or to have a last cigarette. But now, in the funeral parlor, the sexes were not so sharply separated. The men did not have the dismal death-and-despair aura of the women, but they were somber enough. They all wore fresh white shirts, black ties and black shoes, but not all the suits were black. Some were dark blue and even gray, which slightly modified the impression of a uniform mass of dark bereavement.

New arrivals went past the chief mourner’s row, greeting each of them, offering condolences, exchanging kisses or handshakes and scraps of appropriate conversation. And then they went to the casket to pray for the soul of Aunt Filomena. My mother and I were behind Aunt Mary in the procession and I saw her slip a coin under the small lace pillow. I don’t think anyone else noticed, but I saw it because I was looking for it. I was not the youngest child at the funeral, but I was not old enough to avoid following my mother through mourner’s row. We slowly passed through the gauntlet and then knelt on the padded rail. The whole matter was repugnant and I wished I could get out of there. The sight of the corpse, the occasional comment on how good and true to life she looked, the women who seemed to enjoy their sorrow, the silent and resigned men, were all repulsive

The flowers that were not able to mitigate the atmosphere of gloom were everywhere. Huge sprays and wreaths and blankets and vases were crowded on each side of the coffin, along the sides of the room, and almost hid the podium against the right hand wall. And they wore banners of purple, silver, blue, maroon or white, proclaiming sympathy and kinship: “From Your Loving Sisters” or “In Memory of Our Dear Aunt” and so on. Asters, mums, carnations, lilies, tiger lilies, snapdragons, and roses, roses, roses, roses; red and pink and white and yellow. The scent was strong — an amalgamated oppressive aroma in which no single species could be detected, but which contained the power of all flowers. It was a force urging me to be gone and finally my mother completed her endless obligation and I followed her out, escaping to the vestibule.

The women’s crying gradually died down. People who had not seen each other for some time became reacquainted, brought each other up to date on their activities, and a degree of sociability gradually replaced the dark aura of mourning. Proud statements of the accomplishments of family members, the marvels of growing grandchildren, graduations, recent marriages, and new jobs were exchanged with an air of total amiability along with regrets that they only saw each other at weddings and funerals, and promises to get together more often. Soon there was a pleasant buzz, not only in the vestibule and sitting room, but also in the funeral parlor. Some quiet laughter could even be heard and the wake became more than just a shared experience of grief.

A bell was ringing. It was not very loud but it was insistent. Everyone took seats in the funeral parlor as an attendant dragged out the podium hiding behind the flowers and placed it directly in front of the coffin. The priest had arrived and the evening services were about to begin. He was a tall, thin Italian and he started the service with some unremarkable prayers. When he referred directly to Aunt Filomena, describing her devotion to church and family and how she lived a life of service to others (none of which was quite true), Dolly started. Her crying was not loud, but it was obvious, and I started to think about the possibilities at the cemetery. My guess was that she would try desperately to jump into the grave and might even succeed in spite of the best efforts of the three wardens.

At last the priest was done. He bestowed a final benediction, and as they left their seats the occupants of the funeral parlor drifted into the vestibule and were transformed from an assembly of mourners into individuals. Having done their duty, friends and acquaintances left for home and would not be back, but most relatives returned for the next day’s session, which was a repeat performance, except that different friends were there and Dolly was a little more rumpled. Again, the number of people in attendance in the evening was much larger than in the afternoon, again the flowers were oppressive, again the priest gave a boring performance and again there was a transformation to sociability.

The next stage was the funeral itself. The beginning event was a final brief service on the following morning, led by the same priest, and a final procession past the coffin of those who wanted to offer a last prayer and farewell. Then the funeral director took over. He had been an inconspicuous background figure up to now, making sure that all physical arrangements, such as chairs, flowers, podium, envelope table and guest book, were in order. Occasionally he would walk through the vestibule, or look into the sitting rooms off the vestibule to assure people that someone was in charge. But now he was no longer a minor character; he was the master of ceremonies. First he announced that Aunt Filomena would be transported to her last Mass and told everyone that they should leave for the church immediately. Then he convened the pallbearers to instruct them in the proper mode of carrying the casket and the best way to negotiate it into the hearse, out of the hearse, up the church steps, onto a wheeled carrier, back down the church steps, back into the hearse, out of the hearse again and to the gravesite. He was very precise with these instructions because it would never do to make a mistake while carrying the casket. To make sure that everything went well one of the director’s assistants stayed close to the pallbearers. They performed their task without a hitch.

The service was a High Mass. It lasted over an hour and was a fine illustration of the brilliant applied psychology by which the Church captured and held the souls of the faithful. The church itself was a work of art with bas-relief representations of the Stations of the Cross, polished light-oak pews, a high Gothic nave and a large dazzling white altar decorated with white and gold linens, white lilies and red roses, all magically enhanced by the bright morning light which was colored, refracted and scattered throughout the church as it streamed through the stained glass windows.

The priest sang the Mass in a smooth baritone and the choir, dominated by female voices, was a striking counterpoint. Flowers and censer combined to give the air an exotic bouquet and the overall impression was one of serenity, of being at peace, and of being in touch with something profound. The divine seduction was complete.

The guests had found their own way to the church but after the Mass they were carefully organized by the funeral director and his assistants. The hearse was first in line followed by a limousine containing the mourners-of-honor. Several automobiles holding other close relatives of the deceased were behind the limo and after them came a line of cars of no particular rank, all of them urged close together by the assistant directors and all of them with their headlights turned on. The procession preempted the right of way at every intersection and traffic light, but it was slow and took over thirty minutes to get to the cemetery. After passing through large black iron gates, we parked on the edge of the road close to the open grave.

The funeral director himself opened the back door of the hearse and again instructed the pallbearers, who properly grasped the brass rails and carried the coffin to the gravesite where it was placed on a sling, which would lower it into the ground after the service.

Dolly would not wait. Displaying a surprising agility, she was out of the limousine just as the hearse door was opened, and started toward the coffin. She was quickly flanked by two of the guards while her husband tried to keep her calm. Joe’s efforts seemed to work and Dolly walked slowly and quietly to the coffin, which was now level with the ground, suspended over the open grave. A good deal of attention was focused on Dolly because at least some action was expected during the burial.

It took some time for the cars to empty and for the guests to get properly arranged so the service could get started. There was a row of chairs near the grave for Dolly, her father and son, and for Aunt Filomena’s sisters. Some additional chairs were provided for the more elderly mourners, but the others had to stand.

For a time the ritual was uneventful. The priest began with a blessing, went on to the overlong prayers and came to the point at which he commended Aunt Filomena to God, mentioning her name and those loved ones she left behind. As the priest started in on this final section of the service, Dolly became more restive and started a low, soft sobbing and, just as he finished, and just as the coffin was being lowered, Dolly released a high-pitched wail, called for her mother, begged her not to leave, rose from her chair and started toward the coffin, screaming “I don’t want to live, I am coming with you.” Joe and his two helpers tried to constrain her, but Dolly’s strength was unexpectedly magnified and she was aided by the substantial inertial mass of her moving bulk, which resisted the efforts to stop her. Dolly was making progress and the situation was getting out of hand. Her thick legs pushed mightily against the ground and her arms were flailing at the guards while she continued to cry and protest. It was a remarkably violent expression of grief.

The contagion of sorrow spread to some of the other women, especially Aunt Filomena’s sisters and my Aunt Mary. They did not rise and try to follow Dolly to the grave, but they sobbed and keened with a variety of tones and volumes, providing a fitting aural backdrop to Dolly’s performance.

She was still struggling and looked a mess. Her gray hair was loose and uncombed, the same black dress was now completely wrinkled, and the rest of her was equally unkempt. Her eyes were red from the continual crying and her face was puffy and, because of her exertions, it had lost the funeral-home pallor and turned an unhealthy mottled pink.

Dolly was close to the edge of the grave. With experienced judgment, the workmen had stopped the coffin’s descent so it was only partway down but Dolly could still hurt herself and cause a serious retrieval problem if she jumped in. Joe was in front of her trying to push her back and his two assistants had her by the arms. Her girth defeated any attempts to grab her by the waist, and she was still moving forward. But then two other men rushed up to help and she was finally stopped and dragged back to her chair. A catastrophe that only a few really believed would occur had been averted.

The sounds of mourning gradually faded away, the funeral director announced that the family of the deceased invited everyone to lunch at a nearby restaurant, and the crowd gradually dispersed.

Aunt Filomena had been sent off in the most reverent and respectful manner possible.

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