• Kasia Borowczak

Coversation with Anna from Italy

Kasia - The way we approach death as a society has changed a lot over the years. You are an archaeologist and I know that you are very interested in the rites of passage, both present and historical, less frequently practiced. Why do you think our approach to death has changed so much in the last few decades?


Anna - The change I notice most of all is the fact that mourning is being followed less and less. In our modern society, though perhaps not in all cultures, there is a tendency to move away from death, not talk about it, and act in a hurry when someone dies. There is no doubt that when a loved one passes away, the pain is enormous, family members get quickly involved, a funeral takes place and condolence visits are paid. But at the same time, attempts are made to return to normal life as soon as possible and not to talk about our deceased loved one anymore. Talking to someone about death in general seems awkward.


Kasia - It seems like suffering becomes an embarrassing act.


Anna - Yes, especially when we express our pain for too long. So grieving is observed for a short time, we try not to think about the pain or talk about it, and this clearly is not good for us.


Kasia - I agree, it is definitely not good for the human condition.


Anna - In our modern society, we can cure many diseases. A human being is strong and does many things, believes in science and technology, leads a hedonistic lifestyle, but at the same time knows that death cannot be escaped, and therefore prefers not to think nor speak about it.


Kasia - We humans, as you just said, understand so much, but we can't understand death and maybe that's why we don't want to spend too much time on it?


Anna - Death has always been terrifying, but now it seems to be less accepted. It seems to me that if we do not prepare for it even a little, its impact on us can be very surprising.


Kasia - What do we lose if we don’t talk about death and the loss of loved ones? And why are rites of passage so important?


Anna - As you mentioned at the beginning, I am interested in the rites of passage, especially the funeral rites, but I am not an expert. Many experts have studied and are still studying these rites and now also the modern approach to the subject of death. Even if death is a natural fact, since mankind knew that we all must die, death terrified and was a painful and disturbing event, both for individuals and communities. Diverse funeral rites, because there are so many of them, help to face fear, detachment and pain after death. They also help to separate the dead from the living, because the dead themselves seem terrifying to us, and lead them to the afterlife.


I realize that even where I live, it was different, because the loss of a loved one was once very much celebrated. People who were grieving wore black clothes, it was even established how long one should be grieving, a year, two years or 6 months. It depended on what family member died. Doing certain things was prohibited, such as having parties. Sometimes those who were grieving could not even leave the house or open the windows. In some houses, the table was not set for eating, and in the beginning people did not cook, only neighbours were bringing ready meals. I know that in some cultures there were also funeral banquets. There was no such tradition in Italy.


Kasia - This tradition has been cultivated in Poland. After the funeral, people go to a restaurant for a meal and invite those who have come.


Anna - Here, right after the funeral, you return to normal life as soon as possible. And yet it is so necessary to experience grief and devote time to feel sad after the death of a loved one. Instead, we are often afraid of feeling pain and of being sad. For this reason, we often don't experience it at all, and we don't process it. I am afraid that sooner or later it could have negative consequences. Talking to those who want to listen certainly helps in dealing with death and what follows. However, we talk so little about it.


Kasia - Little or not at all.


Anna - Little is talked about the dead either, even after some time has passed. For example, I like to talk about my ancestors from time to time when I do something pleasant. For example, while eating at the table, I often remember how my grandmothers used to cook.


Kasia - It seems to me that remembering people who died, but still accompanied us for some time in our lives, and were important to us, somehow brings them back to life. And do you think your culture has influenced the way you approach death?


Anna - It's almost obvious that my whole culture influences me. I am sure that my approach towards life and death cannot be absolutely the same as that of a Buddhist. But I think the pain, which appears when we lose a loved one, is the same for everyone, with some differences, of course. In fact, all cultures, even the oldest ones, have different funeral rites that show attachment to the deceased and a desire to pay tribute to them. Certainly, these rites also largely depend on beliefs about the afterlife.


I grew up in a Catholic region, in a Christian world, but now I somehow lack faith of my religion. But I like to think my ancestors protect me, but more on a poetic level. I like to imagine that something is still there. My grandmother believed that when she dreamed about dead family members, she really saw them. I have always liked this belief.


Kasia - Sometimes I also dream about my father, although not very often. For me it is like creating new memories with him by meeting him in a dream where I can hear his voice and see very precisely other details of his appearance.


Anna - I have so many photos of my father, but sometimes in my dreams I remember him even better than in reality. I remember vividly the story of an aged neighbour who, after many years, was still dreaming about her fiancé who died in the war. One day, when I visited her, she told me that she had a dream with this young man and that this dream was very real. He was young and she was really happy.


Kasia - I know your paternal grandmother told you many stories about life but also about death. What do you remember about these stories?


Anna - My grandmother died when she was 92 and I remember that she was very tender towards us, grandchildren. She was a woman who truly enjoyed talking about her past. She told stories which were happy and sad. Keep in mind, when she lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the world was completely different. I got to know it partly through her stories. Her stories were about the parties she went to when she was a young girl and about the fact that she was left alone with her father and grandfather because she was the last one who got married from her siblings. She remembered their family member very well, after all these years. She also talked about the pain that accompanied her after their death. Talking about grieving, we need to remember that in those days mothers or children often dies in childbirth; and babies and children died far more often than now. Unfortunately, that's how it was. It was just a fact that had to be accepted. Surely the death of a new-born or child was not easy, but perhaps it was accepted, though with great resignation, as a natural fact? Moreover, families then generally had many more children than now.


I remember my grandmother telling me that one of her sisters and her new-born daughter died during childbirth. My grandmother's mother also died at delivery. My grandmother, who after all lived so long, suffered the loss of all family members. I remember that she was always dressed in black, this is how she expressed her grief during all these years. But she spoke very naturally and serenely about her deceased family members, and when she dreamed about them, she believed that they were really visiting her.


Kasia - And what is the story of Martin and the fig tree about?


Anna - Martino was a fisherman from Lipari who, when he grew old and could no longer fish alone, used to go fishing regularly with my father. He always told many stories, one of which was about the Aeolian beach of Vinci, where there is a fig tree under which Martino and his brother probably rested or watched from the boat while going fishing. When his brother fell ill and was dying, Martino went to pay him a final visit. He approached him and just said: "My dear brother, a fig tree has just bloomed on the Vinci Beach." When he told my father about this, he wondered: "Doctor, what else could I say to my dying brother?"


Kasia - When it is possible to say goodbye to a loved one who is dying, it is difficult to know what to say. It is beautiful to say that a tree has blossomed.


Anna - Martino was a very simple person, but at the same time he was also very smart. He was poor and his life was difficult and tiring, but apparently he approached it with simplicity, and so did many people like him. I think being able to say goodbye to a loved one who is dying can be a consolation. However, this can only happen when the person is very old or has a disease. When death is sudden, premature or dramatic, it is certainly more difficult to accept it. In the past, after all, people usually died at home and close to family members, while now people die more often in hospitals and alone.


Kasia - You have experienced only natural deaths in your life, which are, as you say, slightly easier to accept. However, this does not change the fact that they are always painful and to process. What do you remember from this experience?


Anna - As for my father, he died when he was very old. He died after several months of illness, and we had the opportunity of treating him at home. Thanks to this, everyone in the family, even grandchildren, had a chance to say goodbye to him. I know it was very important to him. It was also a consolation for us and I think that, among other things, we were somehow more prepared for it. It was sad, however, to see his condition deteriorate and to be aware that he would soon die. I believe this experience is just difficult for everyone.


Translated from Italian by Kasia Borowczak

Corrected by Jen Fearnley