The rich culture and history of Italy are impossible to separate from the strong religious influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Italy contains the highest number of Catholic parishes in the world, and it’s not surprising that Roman Catholicism permeates every facet of Italian life.
In fact, over 80 percent of Italians identify as Catholic, so you'll see a lot of similarities to traditional Catholic funerals.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Italians View Death and Dying
- Italian Funeral Traditions and Service
- Italian Funeral Etiquette
- Italian Burial Customs
Within each region and city, Italian culture is built around close-knit communities. The best reflection of their relationship is in the 'Roseto Effect.' In the '90s, Researchers found that the Italian-American Roseto Community had a low mortality rate, noting that any incidents of heart attacks were much lower than their neighbors. The existence of strong community connections is one of the most common denominators for people around the world who tend to live longer.
But in particular, the closeness of Italian families is commonly reflected in any large family celebration, from marriage ceremonies to funeral services. At most large events, it is expected for extended family members and friends to attend, no matter how far they live.
If you are planning your loved one’s funeral or are simply interested in Italian funerals, here are some details about the rituals and etiquette involved.
How Italians View Death and Dying
Italy is home to Vatican City, the smallest independent city-state in the world. The Vatican is the headquarters of the Pope (leader of the Roman Catholic church) and its government. Prior to 1984, the Italian government was firmly connected to the church.
The modern Italian view on death is rooted in Roman Catholicism, given its lengthy history in the country. Roman Catholics believe in heaven, hell, or purgatory after death. Italians have many celebrations for their saints and their deceased loved ones, celebrating on other culturally shared days like All Saints' Day and Day of the Dead.
They believe that life after death is like another journey, with the soul continuing to see, hear and taste. Italians leave offerings for souls that come at night on the Day of the Dead, not unlike Mexican traditions with an Ofrenda.
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Italian Funeral Traditions and Service
Traditional ritual practices in Italy were based on folk beliefs. Italian peasants believed if certain rituals weren’t followed then the spirit of the deceased could return to haunt the living. The deceased may have been buried with objects that they used like cigarettes or coins.
Precautions were taken for the dead to stop spreading the disease to the living. At La Necropoli dei Bambini, or the Cemetery of the Babies, researchers found bodies of children buried with small sacrifices like puppies and animal bones to pacify the soul from returning. One 10-year-old girl was buried with a stone in her mouth. Another girl had stones weighing down her hands and feet to stop her from returning to haunt the living.
Later, Italian funerals became more concerned with the proper display of the body. The deceased was embalmed (if the family could afford it), wore expensive clothes, and was surrounded by elaborate flowers.
Funeral service protocol
In traditional southern Italian villages, expenses were not spared for funerals, even for poorer residents. As mentioned before, efforts were made to stop the soul from returning to the living. Villagers believed that the deceased were unwilling to make their journey into the afterlife. To stop evil from entering the body, they sprinkled salt around the home and on the chest of the deceased.
Funeral services differed between the signori (or mayor), landowners, and their peasants. The signori had more money to spend on elaborate funerals centered around the deceased. Here are some common traditional practices outlined below:
- The wood or zinc casket was engraved with the family crest or name, and pulled by black horses. Peasants used wood caskets that were carried by friends and family on foot.
- Both the signori and the peasants attended a Roman Catholic mass, with selected scriptures and eulogies read. The priest blessed the casket. The signori receives a sacrament (special blessing) from the priest like an offering of bread or holy water. Some caskets were blessed with holy water or incense.
- Friends and family return home by a different route to confuse the soul, preventing them from finding their way back. Then, they eat dinner together and end the funeral.
Italian funeral rites are largely focused on calming the soul through prayer. Periods of mourning are different based on the city location but the family usually wore black from one to two years.
The modern Italian funeral is a community affair. Here are examples of Italian etiquette you may find different than American funerals:
- Deaths must be registered in the residence of the deceased and permits may need to be acquired for burial.
- Italians don’t announce deaths in obituaries as Americans do. Instead, death posters are hung up in the middle of town. The open death advertisement invites the entire community to the funeral. Depending on the city, permits are required to hang posters on the street.
- Funeral homes are growing in popularity but are still not commonplace. Traditional Italians host family and friends in their home, with a room prepared for the deceased where the community can say goodbye. If space is unavailable, the family brings the deceased to hospital morgues.
- A closed casket is popular at secular funerals in Italy but still seen as taboo. Italians value touch. Family members, including children, and friends are intimate with the dead. They will often kiss the forehead or cheek and touch the hand in farewell.
Popular funeral songs
Roman Catholic hymns are often translated from English to Italian at funerals.
Selections from Italian composers and singers such as the opera singer Andrea Bocelli are favorite songs to play at a funeral. Families may want to opt for an Italian composer at their funeral.
Roman Catholics are firm believers in the Holy Trinity—or the unity of the Father (God), the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. Typical funeral prayers heavily involve the Trinity as part of their wish for God to guide their deceased loved one as well as traditional prayers used in mass.
Here are some familiar prayers you may hear at your loved one’s funeral:
- Our Father: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name..”
- Apostles Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth..”
It is important for Roman Catholics for the priest to pray over the dying to ease their passing. Family, friends, or clergy members may say prayers on three occasions. They are:
- Vigil: Family members and friends speak about their loved one. The church prepares prayers or scriptures.
- Rosary: This prayer lasts twenty minutes. Family members can personalize the service by leading loved ones in prayer.
- Wake: Prayers may be said when family and friends visit the body at the home or morgue.
Location of service
The wake before the funeral can take place anywhere, including the church, family home, or another comfortable location.
Elaborate flowers are an important sign of respect for the family and their loved ones. Traditionally, floral wreaths were attached to caskets. The landowners had more elaborate wreaths. They were in the shapes of the moon, stars, and clock to help ease the soul’s journey into the afterlife.
Today, flowers with banners adorn the casket. Flowers are present in the church or given as a gift to the family. It’s best to choose traditional flowers like chrysanthemums, carnations, roses, or lilies.
Italian Funeral Etiquette
You can expect the funeral to be a family affair. A somber and hectic mood may meet you at the family’s home. Italians don’t shy away from death, and you can expect funeral etiquette to be traditional and family-centered.
What to wear
You want to wear dark colors, usually black, at an Italian wedding. Casual attire like jeans and sneakers is discouraged since it can be seen as a sign of disrespect to the family.
You can also read our guide on what to wear at a traditional ceremony.
Bringing gifts, sympathy cards, and flowers
Italians place great emphasis on flowers. Instead of a monetary donation or material gift, you may want to consider bringing food. Before the funeral, the family will usually host guests at their home and share in a meal.
The family isn’t expected to cook while grieving, so bringing meals can be a very helpful gesture.
Italian Burial Customs
Italians are usually buried, yet the location of the remains may shift over the years. Due to lack of space, burial plots can be rented for a period of ten, twenty, or thirty years.
Later, the remains are placed in a communal area or cremated. It is popular for boxes of older remains to be stacked together and put into a recess in a wall. It is important to note that under Italian law, the deceased cannot be buried until 24 hours pass.
Because of restrictions, ground burials are becoming less common. In recent years, cremation is becoming a popular option due to cost and space. As of 1963, the Roman Catholic Church lifted the ban but there are some guidelines:
- Remains cannot be scattered.
- Remains are not in the home, but at a sacred place instead.
- Your loved one’s remains can be placed in a heavy box and dropped into the sea.
- The church recommends a final resting place at a cemetery or mausoleum.
Paying Your Respects at an Italian Funeral
The Italian funeral is less about joy and more about grief. You can expect to see the family with their hearts open and grieving. Italy's funeral history focused on the soul and religion. As long as you follow traditions and etiquette, you can feel confident when attending an Italian funeral.
- “Italy.” The World CIA Factbook, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/it.html
- Blue, Alexis. “Vampire Burial' Reveals Efforts to Prevent Child's Return from Grave,” The University of Arizona, October 11, 2018, www.uanews.arizona.edu/story/vampire-burial-reveals-efforts-prevent-childs-return-grave
- “All Souls Day.” Catholic, www.catholic.org/saints/allsouls/
- Egolf Brenda, Lasker Judith, Wolf Stewart, Potvin Louise. “The Roseto Effect: A 50-Year Comparison of Mortality Rates,” www.ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.82.8.1089
- Mathias, Elizabeth. “The Italian-American Funeral: Persistence through Change,” www.jstor.org/stable/1498250
- “Catholic Prayers.” Jesuit Resource, www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/prayer-index/catholic-prayers
- “A Guide to Catholic Funerals.” St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, www.smmcc.org/199
- Diocese of Orange Catholic Cemeteries, www.occem.org/about/property-options/facts-you-should-know-about-catholic-cremation/
- “Death on Italian Territory.” Government of Canada, www.canadainternational.gc.ca/italy-italie/consular_services_consulaires/death-deces.aspx?lang=eng