Because PBS airs Parts 3 and 4 of “The Italian Americans” tonight at 9pm (check your local listings here), I once again present what I consider a companion piece to that documentary. (The first part in this series, about appetizers and Happy Hour can be read here.) In my occasional series “Growing Up Italian-American,” I focus on the elements of Italian-American culture that slip through the cracks of earnest PBS documentaries. Today I cover some strange traditions surrounding wakes.
Lots of different cultures hold wakes. Jewish families sit Shiva. Irish-Americans take pride in their whiskey-fueled wakes. Italian-Americans hold wakes that are like sober Irish-American ones if Irish-Americans regularly took pictures of the dearly departed in the open, satin-lined casket. Then these pictures get collected in albums every family keeps on a shelf. These are like the Topps trading cards of dead Italian-Americans.
While growing up, each of us had eventually stumbled across my grandmother’s photo album which contained photos of dead relatives and friends in their coffins and the souvenir prayer cards from each wake. I remember being around six and wondering why Great Aunt Edith was sleeping in such a strange white bed, and why in the world would Grandma have so many pictures of it. After she told me about what the album was, I would occasionally look at it while I was bored on a Sunday afternoon before the salami came out. When I got older, I came up with a good use for those pics. I would try to scare my sisters with pictures I’d snuck out of the album whenever we visited: like the time I pinned one in the toilet paper so it would pop out after a few squares when I knew one of them was going to go right after me in my grandparents’ one-bathroom house. Continue reading