The following day we returned to the ward to thank the staff and bring flowers for the shrine of the “Madonnina”. I was taken aback when the elderly nun insisted on giving me three big hugs. It seemed we had at last won her over, as she had seen over the past long and difficult weeks, that we were a close loving family.
The next day or so passed by so quickly, it all seemed a blur. We phoned family and friends to pass on the news. On hearing this our builders were very sad, so much so that Orazio and Alfonso immediately drove up from Cassino to Itri to be with us. We found this deeply touching.
In Italy the dead are generally buried incredibly swiftly, often the following day, as refrigeration or preservation techniques are not commonly available. Burials are the norm in this area, cremations are exceedingly rare, in fact practically unheard of. Italian law states that a body can be buried as soon as 24 hours have passed from the time of death, so long as there were no suspicious circumstances. Sadly there was no time for family to fly over to be with us for the funeral – it was simply out of the question.
Orazio and Alfonso very compassionately accompanied us to the Funeral Director’s premises, someone they knew. They told the proprietor not to overcharge us we were “friends”. We were shown into a back room which had a small selection of coffins mounted on racks on the wall. We selected one and ordered a floral tribute or “cushion of flowers” as it is known as in Italy. We were asked if we wanted printed posters to be put up around the town announcing the death, as is normal practice, however we declined the offer.
We were informed that in Italy the dead person is traditionally laid out for viewing by family and friends prior to burial. We were instructed to choose a full set of clothes to dress Mamma for her journey to her final resting place. Mamma had always loved clothes, having been a dressmaker in her youth, and had liked to look colourful and presentable. Thus we took great care in selecting a special outfit.
The following morning we took the clothes to the hospital mortuary and the funeral director asked us to wait outside, as which stage welcome reinforcements arrived in the form of my Italian cousins from Atina. We were so glad to see them and we were greeted with warm hugs and consoling support. After 15 minutes or so the open pink satin lined coffin was wheeled on a trolley into a little chapel area. A fine white lace edged net was draped over the coffin and inside there was Mamma, laid out with a plastic rosary wrapped around her hands. I remember thinking “That’s not my mother, lying there so lifeless and cold.” She looked like a little mannequin, her face had been crudely “padded out” – somehow she just looked all wrong !!! In hindsight I am not sure I should have gone to see her like that, as this image of her will always remain with me now. I would have preferred to remember how she had been in life – cheerful, alert and ever youthful in spirit. Thank goodness we had advised poor “Ugo” not to come and view the body. The casket was then closed and loaded into the waiting grey hearse.
In the main square by the church in Itri, we were moved by how many of our Italian friends had come especially to help support us at the funeral, including the builders, and not to mention of course our family from Atina. The Mass was a lengthy affair and of course all in Italian. Regrettably the priest had not even taken the time to find out anything about Tina or her life, nor did he deign to proffer any kind words of comfort to us the grieving family. This hurt me deeply.
Incongruously, nor did he accompany the funeral cortege to the cemetery, so there were no last few prayers or a blessing before Mamma was laid to rest. There was very little room left in the cemetery, so we had been allocated a grave in the ground, not in the strange hi-rise block of compartments which are rather like filing cabinets.
The coffin, having first paused on the side of the grave, was just unceremoniously lowered into the prepared open space. We stood there, either side as support for my poor father, all holding each other as all of us were still in shock and disbelief, as two of the smartly suited funeral directors began shoveling earth onto the coffin. No … not just a handful, or perhaps a token shovelful or two. In the blistering midday sun we stood motionless, seemingly trapped in time, as they laboured on and on. The men sweated profusely in their work, until eventually their jackets had to be discarded. When finally they began to flag, another pair from the team took their place, shovelling away until all the excavated earth was mounded over the grave. It was a truly bizarre experience and again something not to be easily forgotten.
In Italy there is no wake or large gathering after the funeral, but our cousins from Atina returned home with us to keep us company. Over the next few days several of our Italian friends came to visit us to pay their condolences for our loss.
We were inundated with phone calls and text messages, cards, letters and flowers from family and friends in the UK and from all around the world. We were informed that other masses were to be said for Tina back in Wales, at St Peter’s Italian Church in Clerkenwell, London and in the USA, which was consoling to know. We were very touched by all these communications and found that they helped greatly to comfort us in our time of grieving.
Tina (Concetta) was indeed a very special person – so young at heart, so full of vitality, warmth and love which touched and influenced everyone she met. In her life she had overcome so many adversities and health problems, yet she succeeded in living her 85 years to the full.
Our daughter-in-law asked me how she could explain Tina’s death to our young grandchildren. To the little ones Tina had been their special “Nonnina”. I explained that in the early hours of morning , when we arrived back from the hospital to “Tre Cancelle”, having said our last goodbyes to Tina, it was such a perfect, still balmy summer’s night. We stood and gazed up at the most beautiful sky of shiny twinkling stars. This night there seemed to be an extra star, one so very special, and bright – It was Tina’s star. So although we would miss her so very much, in fact more than any words could say, yet we knew that we could go out each night and look up at the velvet sky, and see that she is still out there, forever watching over us all.
Chapter 39 –