Meaning of Death

Italian Funerals: My experience of the death of my Nonno

Cynthia Logiudice

My Nonno (grandfather) was a great man in my sight. He lived his life making sure that everyone in his family was provided for, because he loved them so much. As my Nonno got older he began to show symptoms of senility. A year ago he was medically diagnosed with dementia.

As could be imagined, this was very hard for our family. Nonno was always healthy, never sick; so this was a big shock. He was slowly loosing his memory as the years went by, but this year was definitely the hardest. When my Nonno forgot who I was, I did not know how to take it all in. I understood what the disease did to the brain and no one could stop the process of the brain dying. I took it very hard, but I did not let my emotion get the best of me, I pushed my feelings aside and accepted it.
In April 2006 my Nonno was sent to a nursing home. This was a very difficult decision for his sons and his wife. It was like leaving a new born baby with a babysitter. I never wanted to visit the nursing home, because it hurt too much to see him there. I thought if he did not know who I was, what was the point? My dad went all the time, as well his brothers.

I finally decided I needed to go to the nursing home. When I did, I hated every moment there. Watching him deteriorate right in front of my eyes, I could do nothing to help him. I realized I did not want to go to the nursing home because watching him die made me feel helpless. Every time my Nonno saw us, he thought he was going home. But we had to lie to him, telling him, “No, Nonno you have to stay here, because you have to work and the new house is being built.

So, Nonno stayed and he waited. Even though he was in the nursing home, in his mind he was still working. One day Nonno used the chair as a vacuum cleaner. That was the first job he had when he first came to Canada, at The Bay. He was reliving his earliest years in Canada.

Dying and death of Nonno

Nonno was in the Nursing home for 6 months before he passed away. He began to get very sick around the end of September and we all had very strong intuition that he would die very soon. The first time we took Nonno to the hospital was for not wanting to eat. For Nonno that sounded crazy. Eating was what Nonno loved, even in the nursing home. He never turned away his food and it kept him alive. When he turned away food we knew it was only a matter of time. But the hospital kept turning him away, telling us he was fine and that he would resume eating soon.
The next visit to the hospital was because he fell and hit is head very badly and the scar was still there when we buried him. The last visit to the hospital was when he was vomiting all day in the Nursing home. My dad brought him to a different hospital, Saint Joseph’s in Toronto. This time Nonno never left the hospital and he was diagnosed with Stomach Cancer. We could not believe how ironic it was that what Nonno loved the most, and what kept him alive, was what finally killed him.

Anticipating that Nonno might die any time was very hard. The doctors prepared my family, with the greatest compassion at heart. The doctors told us how the cancer will eat him away, and what will shut down first in his body. Because Nonno was 92 he would not be getting any treatment for cancer. Therefore, we had to watch him die. I went to the hospital once, before he was diagnosed, because I had a feeling he would die very soon. It was such a busy time in the semester of school, but I knew I needed to see him one last time, even though he did not remember me.
When I saw him, he was very thin. Nonno was always a bigger man, hence his love for food. But in my memory Nonno was always strong. When we went to see Nonno, he said “finally you here, take me home.” My dad had to tell him that he was sick and the doctors needed to take tests. Nonno did not understand this, because, never in his life was he in the hospital; he felt tied down and useless. The nurses kept telling us that he was trying to escape when we were not there.
When Nonno figured out we were not taking him home, he thanked us for visiting and asked us to leave. We laughed, and told him we were not leaving and that we would stay with him for a little longer. When I finally said goodbye to Nonno, I kissed him on the forehead for the last time. Tears flew from my eyes as I left the hospital.

On the Thursday before he died, Nonno called my Nonna (grandmother) “Ma” because of his memory loss. That day he called her Maria and asked her to tell everyone that he wanted to say goodbye and this was life. On that Saturday October 28th Nonno passed away.

An Italian family

Let me first introduce you to an Italian family. Italians, to begin are incredibly family orientated, my grandparents were my baby-sitters, and I saw them once a week for as long as I could remember, both set of grandparents. Every holiday, every birthday, which, there were two every month, was another party. Let me just say my grandparents were very much a part of my life. They spoiled me; they gave me culture and tradition, they taught me what it was to be Italian. How to cook Italian, how to love each other, and most of all they taught me everything there was to know about their life. For example, My Nonno worked from the time he was 6 years old to help out in his family, and every time he saw me he would tell me the stories of his youth.

My Nonno also made wine, exceptionally good wine, that was his water growing up, that was all he drank. Every time we went over to visit, we had to drink his wine, it was a must. The Garden was also my Nonno’s life, it was a beautiful garden, he had pear trees, a fig vine, a grape vine, you name it, he had it. Often when I went over, we would get a tour of how things were growing, what fruit and vegetables looked like when they were ready, and the stories could go on forever.

Nonno taught me a lot about life, and that we need to work hard for everything. Which was a very important lesson for me, working hard, nothing in this life comes easy, and we must do everything with our best effort. So as it can be seen, to Italians, family, food, wine and love is everything, when one of passes away it is a tragedy, the chain is broken.

The death and mourning

When we all found out Nonno died, life stopped, and family was the only thing that mattered. I left work and immediately went to the hospital. In the hospital in critical care, my Nonno was surrounded by his whole family, there was about 30 people gathered together. It was a very loud gathering and often the nurses had to tell us to keep it down, very embarrassing. Even close friends to my grandparents had to come.

We stayed with Nonno until his body had to be taken away to the morgue. Now Italians are very dramatic people, my aunts were screaming and crying. Right after the body was taken away we went directly to my Nonna’s house; now keep in mind this was 1:00pm on a Saturday. The immediate family stayed with my Nonna for dinner, and then visitations at the house began. This visitation lasted for hours, and we saw at least 20 different people.

To paint a picture of what the evening looked like: My Nonna had a huge table in the basement, and there were 20 people sitting at this table. There was a tremendous amount of food, cookies, buns, cheese, pizza, everything. Even though it was a sad occasion there was not one moment of silence.

I left my Nonna’s house at 10:00pm. Exhausted and traumatized, I went home confused and not looking forward to the events to follow. The next morning we did not attend church, because Sunday was the first viewing and lunch was being prepared for the whole family.

An Italian funeral

During Italian funerals there are many customs and traditions that must be followed. So we went to Nonna’s house and helped her around the home. The funeral home had everything ready for us regarding the viewing. The second viewing was on Monday then the burial on the Tuesday.

Sunday was an extremely long day. We arrived at the funeral home, and seeing my Nonno in the casket was very hard. The reality would not sink in that he was dead. The body that lay in front of me looked like someone else, someone I did not know. My cousin had lost her Nonno a while ago and was a little more familiar with the events to follow. She was able to kiss him and touch him. I could not — I felt strange touching something dead. The tears did not stop; they flowed down my face throughout the night. People came to see us and giving us words of comfort. All I could do was to stare at the casket, trying to let everything sink in, but it did not.

Kissing and greeting is a big part of an Italian family. A lot of people came the first evening to give their condolences. Meanwhile my Nonno’s only brother that was in Canada (Zio (uncle) Peppino) was in the hospital for intestinal problems. Ironic? He was trying to get released from the hospital so that he could be with his family. I kissed and greeted every older person I could ever imagine. They all told me how they remembered me when I was little.

The funeral home was loud and people standing every where, in general the funeral was incredibly dramatic. After the viewing we went to my Nonna’s house again as there was food prepared for us to eat. Food is the most important part, because it gives us the strength to continue especially during this time.

The next day was the next viewing. To Italians, the people that come to visit are very important. People from my father’s work came, from my uncle’s work came. Many friends and family members came. It is important to us that we know that people support us and love us. There were numerous amounts of flowers, many sent from Italy.

My Nonno’s sister passed away a month ago. On the day of the viewing, my Nonno’s brother in Italy had a heart attack. So one can only imagine the time our family was going through. Monday was the longest day. By now all of us were drained and going through the motions. I had to prepare the eulogy. I felt honored to share my Nonno’s life with everyone. At the end of all the viewings at my Nonno’s house, we sat at the table again and we all remembered my Nonno’s life, laughing and crying, missing the stories he always told. I was able to take what my Nonno’s life meant to all of us and incorporate into a beautiful speech. That captured the listeners the following Tuesday morning at the funeral service.

That Tuesday was the hardest day for all of us. Of course there was drama to begin; we had to be there at 8:30 am. We were taken from my Nonna’s house by limos to the funeral home, and we were left with the body for an hour to say goodbye. My Zio Peppino was discharged from the hospital so he could be with his family. Seeing my Zio was emotional for all of us, when he saw my Nonno in the casket he waved his hand like he always did when they saw each other. He waved his hand at my Nonno, crying “why Saverio, how could this happen, I love you, why.” For us to see our Zio in this way we cried uncontrollably. Now for some reason in the room, visitors were coming in, and of course this made my aunts and uncles upset because it was just supposed to be us.

The visitors were asked to leave. Once they were gone, one by one we each said goodbye to Nonno before the closing of the casket. When I got up there, I went with my sisters, we each said goodbye, this time I held my Nonno’s hand and it felt so cold, so empty. We held each other as the tears flowed down our faces, we said goodbye to Nonno for the last time. Now as Italians respect is a big thing, and the grandchildren know this, we went to our parents and to our aunts and uncles, and our Nonna to give them our condolences. This is a sign of respect to them and this made us all very close.

Then it was time for the casket to close, at this moment I was not prepared for what was coming, they lowered my Nonno in and I could not hold any emotion in and I cried and I screamed as well as everyone else. My aunt was yelling and once the casket was closed we all held on to the family that was beside us. At this moment I was in shock I could not keep my eyes off the casket and my body just shook, my eyes did not blink.

Visitors were now allowed to enter, and the service began. We sang a few songs, everything felt like I was in a daze until I gave my eulogy. I went up there with my Mother and my cousin, my Mother was doing the eulogy in Italian, I was doing it in English. I gave the speech honoring my Nonno, I told some of his favorite stories. I looked at everyone’s face — some smiling at the memories, most in grief. When I ended the eulogy I thought I was not going to cry, but I cried when I ended. I wanted to say goodbye for my Nonno, because Nonno always gave a speech when he would say goodbye to his grandchildren. He would always say “Thank you for visiting, be careful wherever you go, be safe, you do not know the dangers out there, and drive carefully.” I could see my dad and my uncle’s hearts broken and my cousins as I said this, and words cannot describe what we all felt at that moment. However, it was comforting to know that we all understood, and we all remembered Nonno in our own special way.

As the service ended the men carried the casket to the car as we followed to our limos. The drive to the cemetery was quiet and we were all very tired, there were four limos as our family is quite large. When the casket reached the mausoleum where he was to be rest each grandchild put a white rose on top of Nonno’s casket and each son put a red rose. Nonno was lifted and put away in the hollow hole in the wall. My Zio Peppino was waving his hand again telling his brother it was going to get dark and to be safe. As the wall was being closed, people screamed and cried, walking arm and arm, to line up as everyone was to give their final condolences.

Preceding the burial, the church had prepared lunch. For us the lunch was loud and a joyful time, as we laughed and enjoyed each others company. Our family was prayed for and we sat together knowing Nonno was in a better place no matter how much we missed him. The limos then brought us back to Nonna’s house; we brought all the flowers there and helped her clean up the home. The following day we had to go back to our normal routine. My sisters, my parents and I stayed home, now we had to clean our home, it was a disaster. But life did not feel the same; I could not believe how fast the past few days went by. I could not believe we had just buried my grandfather and he was gone.

Grieving the loss

The days and weeks to follow were difficult. It was very hard going back to school and trying to concentrate on the assignments that needed to get done. Trying to concentrate and focus was easier said than done. I know in my heart everything happened for a reason and I felt comforted knowing Nonno was with Jesus, but still it felt like something was missing. It still feels that way, but I know I will see Nonno again one day and I am thankful for all the meaning Nonno has brought to my life. I will keep the memories of him alive in my heart. I will enjoy my family, my food, my friends and my life that much more.

In all that I have experienced I have been searching for meaning of my Nonno passing away. I cannot begin to explain all the wonderful things that have happened during this time. My family grew so much closer, and not just my immediate family but my extended family. During this time, people were there for us, they reached out a helping loving hand. I reconnected with an old friend; after we had lost touch, which then brought forgiveness to our friendship. My Nonno became a believer before he died, which brought the most meaning out of the whole experience.

Reflection on the meaning of death

As I mentioned before my Nonno had dementia. Although it was tragic, I believe it was what brought him to God. During my Nonno’s life he was a very proud man. He did not want to believe in God, because he thought Christians were to be perfect. He could not see himself surrendering to God’s control, because he always needed to be in control. When dementia took over his life, he no longer had control, he was helpless, and became a child again. My father knew he needed to pray with my Nonno, and asked him if he wanted to accept Christ, he did not say a word but just looked at my Dad. My dad told him to repeat these words, and they prayed together, before my Nonno died, he accepted Christ; he accepted that he needed God. For my dad he always knew in his heart one day he was going to pray with his father and that day brought significant meaning to his life. I believe God can use even the worst situations to bring his children back to him, for it is our heart that belongs to him.

Many other Italians have experienced funerals in the same way. I asked my father what the original Italian funeral was like in Italy. The body is taken to the house and kept there for 24 hours, family and friends visit at the home, there is a lot of food as always. The close family does not sleep, as they stay with the body. After the short visitation the burial takes place. He told me that Italians use to have a band that followed the family. “Funeral bands ceased escorting the body to the church around 1955 and the church outlawed tombstone pictures, very tall stones, and planting at the grave sites.” As well “by the mid-1940s the Italians had accepted embalming and the undertaker would generally come to the house, take the body to his establishment for preparation, and then return it to the house where it would be laid out in a casket surrounded by elaborate floral arrangements, until the time came to go on foot to the nearby church for the mass immediately before the trip to the cemetery.

Real grief was present, of course, and the older members of the family still lamented openly and loudly, feared the soul, and slipped salt under the pillow in the casket and sprinkled it on the door steps after the body had been removed from the house” (Mathias, 1972, p. 36). Not much has changed, only we do not keep the body in the home, and we do sleep, but the grieving and the dramatic experience is as much the same today as it was before.

A real life experience from a woman named Deirdre Straughan (2006) talks about the customs she went through when she lost her father in law. “In the US, it seems to be common during times of grief for neighbors to show up with food. So, in Abruzzi, I was amused when a neighbor delivered a watermelon. A few days later, this same lady brought over a timballo (the Abruzzi’s version of lasagna), which was wonderful” (p.2). At my Nonna’s house the neighbour that lives beside her for over 30 years did the same thing, she brought us breakfast both mornings we were there, as sign of respect and care. “The phone rang constantly, forcing Enrico and his mother to repeat the story over and over. But perhaps that helped, as a sort of catharsis, as did the many personal visits from old friends and colleagues” (Straughan, 2006, p.2).

Part of an Italian family, when something happens, a death, a wedding, anything; the whole world has to know. The phone chain just happens and in a matter of moments everyone knows. In my house for two weeks the phone would not stop ringing. There are also some Italian customs that people will follow, it does not have to be followed but the older Italian generation believes it is a must. For example, “Mourning is expected to last approximately one year. The women are typically expected to wear black out of respect for the dead. It is seen as a disgrace to wear colors. There are areas in Italy where the women will dress in black for the remainder of their lives and never remarry. The age at which remarriage is not appropriate was not clear, but most definitely women in their 40s and above would not remarry” (Sirman, L., 1997, p.2). As well “Comfort is received by the knowledge that the loved one is in Heaven, a much better place and from the support of the family. Family appeared to me, to be an integral part of Italian life and the people to whom one turned for support in times of crisis and loss” (Sirman, L., 1997, p.2). Most Italian traditions are followed, but it does vary from family to family. All Italian funerals I have ever been to, have all been the same. Keeping the tradition is important to us, as it brings comfort knowing that these traditions are like those in Italy.

After my Nonno passed away I realized I needed to make some sense from the whole situation. I would ask my self normal questions, why did Nonno have to get sick? Why did he develop Dementia? Why did he have to die in the hospital? Why did he have to forget me? Although I knew the answers to these questions, I did not want to think about them. I knew if I thought about them, his death would turn into reality and I did not want it to be reality. Being in school was difficult; it did not allow me to grieve properly, because as soon as the funeral was over I was forced back into it without reflecting and allowing time to heal. I realized not being able to reflect has taken quite a toll on me mentally and spiritually. I found life to loose meaning, and I lacked motivation. I felt like I was living in a daze, I realized I needed to change my attitude as I was going nowhere. I took what concepts I was learning in class and I made them make sense to me. The whole time in class I was learning to make meaning out of traumatic experiences and here I was doing the opposite, but that is all part of the learning process. I took Frankls concept in Logotherapy. Logotherapy teaches us that everything can be taken away from us, our loved ones, our health, our material possessions, our final freedom—our freedom to decide how we will respond to the circumstances of our life. In other words, what happens to us in life is less important than how we respond to what happens to us; it is not the load we carry, but how we carry it that matters.

This idea really made me think – I had the freedom to choose how to respond to my Nonno’s death. I could not just be sad all the time, but I should be rejoicing that my Nonno lived a great life and found God, and that he was with God, not here on this earth suffering. I first needed to discover the purpose of everything that happened; I needed to focus on the higher purpose. Without realizing the purpose in this situation I would have been lost. I learned so much from this whole experience, I grew tremendously as a person. My grandfather’s death helped me understand the psychology of meaning. There is a purpose in my suffering, my family’s suffering and my grandfather’s suffering. This significant lesson of loss, helped me appreciate the people I love more, not take life for granted, and to be thankful for every moment God has given me on this earth to serve him.

Once I found purpose I came to understand everything happens for a reason. My grandfather was not going to live for ever and this was his time, God was calling him home, and for him this was his own life journey not just mine and my family’s. This was my grandfather’s journey finding God, and I understood that I could not stand in the way; God was completing his perfect will in my grandfather’s life. Now I needed to respond, I had the freedom to choose how to react to this situation. In the beginning I did not react in a positive manner, I was angry, confused and frustrated. However, now that I have cognitively discovered seeking meaning from this traumatic experience, life makes sense, and it is in me to choose how to respond. I visit my grandparents more often, I let my friends a family know how much I appreciate them. As well, rather then sinking into a depression I am allowing God to do his good work in me. I am choosing to live life rather then wasting it away on sadness. The last concept of evaluation is a process I continue to work on. I do not believe grieving will just stop, I believe it takes time. I am adjusting to the realization that life does end and this is a reality we must all face. I am continuing to evaluate my purpose in life, and what God has called me to do. This assignment was a big step in meaning making for me. I was able to go back and grieve again, allowing the Holy Spirit to move in me and heal the brokenness. Although it was a difficult assignment, reliving each moment again, I am thankful I was able to share my heart with someone else. I have been given a life to live; a life to live for God, for this is my purpose.


Mathis, E. (1972). The Italian-American funeral: persistence through change. Italian Folktales in America. P. 35-50.

Straughan, D. (2006). The Italian way of death. Countries Beginning with I. P. 1-6.

Sirman, L. (1997). Interview with Maria: a Canadian Italian. Cultural Interviews. p. 1-5.