Interview with Maria - A Canadian Italian


Liz Sirman

Maria is a 29 year old married, middle class Canadian of Italian decent. She is third generation in Canada; both of her Grandmothers immigrated to Toronto when they were very young. Maria's family practices the Catholic religion and holds strongly to their beliefs and customs, at least through the second generation in Canada.

When a person dies, there is a viewing held for about four days. The family members spend the majority of their time with the deceased, greeting visitors. There is a mass dedicated to the deceased before the funeral and then one after the funeral. Masses are held again one month later and one year later.

A custom practiced by the Catholic Italians is to have a card printed in the memory of the deceased. Maria showed me a card that had been printed for her Grandfather. It looked like a small greeting card. The front had a picture of Jesus and the back a picture of the Virgin Mary. Inside was printed his name and years from birth to death on one side, and on the other, was a prayer in memory of him. These cards are sent out to close friends and people who make donations in honor of the deceased. Maria remembers them being handed out during the viewing of her Grandfather rather than being sent. The cards are extremely important culturally.

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. Maria believes that these rituals are more cultural than religious in origin. The practice of wearing black and the length of mourning can vary greatly according to cultures within the Italian culture. For example, one of Maria's Grandmothers was wearing colors a very short time after her husband's death, while the other Grandmother wore black entirely (even the buttons on her clothes had to be black) and for a much longer period. 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.

The above customs do not apply to the men. There appear to be great gender differences in relation to behavior at the viewing and funerals and in mourning. Women are very open with crying and emotions throughout the viewing and ceremonies. The men on the other hand, are expected to remain unemotional and supportive of the women. Men are viewed as the head of the household in the Italian culture and therefore must remain strong. Maria has yet to see a man cry at an Italian funeral. She did not believe that there was a difference in the public verses private mourning. Perhaps the men might cry in private, but she was not certain.

The Italian funerals are very serious in nature. Although the person is believed to be in Heaven, out of respect for the deceased, there is a somber atmosphere. Maria remembers being very surprised and digusted at an Irish funeral where the mood was very jovial and almost a party-like atmosphere with alcohol and food.

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 intregal part of Italian life and the people to whom one turned for support in times of crisis and loss. When asked if counseling was practiced and accepted in her culture, Maria responded forcefully, never. Especially in times of death, people turn to their families for support, not a stranger.

Maria is somewhat different from her family and culture in regard to her beliefs about life after death. While her family and culture believe that a person dies and goes to Heaven and that is the end, Maria believes in reincarnation. For this reason, Maria does not view death as a sad time, she knows she will one day again meet that soul. When asked if she personally thought counseling would be useful, she didn't think so unless everyone believed in reincarnation and were simply there to provide support.

Maria's believes unhealthy grief would be prolonged grief. While mourning times can last for even longer than a year, after a year that person is expected to cope and function as before the death. It appeared from our conversation that even if someone did experience prolonged grief, the family would intervene as opposed to counseling intervention.

One aspect of Italian culture I found very interesting was the total acceptance of visions, dreams, visits, and conversations with the dead. When the Grandfather of Maria's friend died, the friend felt "the breath" of his Grandfather although he was not with him at that time. He knew from that experience that his Grandfather was either sick or dead. The friend was considered very blessed to have been visited by his Grandfather.

Another experience, this time by Maria's Grandmother involved her having a dream about her dead husband and him giving her a series of numbers. She played these numbers in the lottery and won quite a bit of money. Types of dreams also hold significance. Maria had a dream that her teeth were falling out one night. The next day she felt very strongly that she needed to call her Grandmother. Her Grandmother's sister had just died. Dreams about teeth falling out are believed to predict a coming death.

Canadian funeral customs appear to be very similar to United States customs, that being that there really aren't any standardized rituals due to the fact that both countries are very multicultural. People whose families have been in the United States for many generations tend to have a viewing the night before the funeral and then have a service and burial, and sometimes cremation. Canada is much the same way if there are no strong cultural backgrounds and customs to follow. When asked if Maria felt there was a difference in the rituals she would practice upon a death, being a third generation Italian in Canada, she replied that she would not wear black or have a designated mourning period. She did feel that the longer a family was in another culture, the more the traditional customs and rituals were lost.

This interview was very enlightening and interesting to me. I have grown up with the very traditional one night of viewing and funeral service the next day in the U.S. I was unfamiliar with the rituals in regard to both Italian culture and the Catholic religion. I am Protestant, and for the most part there are few differences in overall beliefs between Catholic and Protestants, but they do exist. I was especially interested in the fact that an ongoing relationship with the dead was very accepted and desired by the entire culture. This aspect appeared to somewhat ease the pain of the death in that the person is still there with their family and able to communicate with them.

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(C) 1997, Liz Sirman. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at