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Funeral Out in the Sticks 27/03/2011

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Aug 7 1885 Poor old Beppa, handsome Domenico’s mother, has been for many months passing slowly into the realms of death. A winter cough and spring weakness have, by the time that the summer heats arrived, changed into utter prostration. When we arrived at The Nook we found her sinking, and all the beef-tea and wine we could supply only restored her for a little time. Even the doctor whom I insisted on sending for declared his inability to do anything at this late stage. Sometimes the weak heart caused a species of fainting, and this her family invariably mistook for death. Then her youngest daughter, Emilia, was despatched post haste to the neighbouring village for the priest, for a good mountaineer does not think a doctor at all indispensable in severe illness, but the idea of dying without the priest would be dreadful to him. So the priest came sometimes before daybreak, sometimes at nightfall, when he generally had to stay all night in the comfortless cottage; but though he duly said prayers for her and laid his stole on the bed as a sign that she died in the arms of the Church, yet time after time Beppa came back to life again. For days the good priest scarcely dared to leave home lest a call to The Nook might come; but after several fruitless alarms he decided not to neglect any more the outlying districts of his parish, and so he departed for Riobujo.

Scarcely had he gone than Emilia came flying across the valley to fetch the priest, for ‘mother was really dying!’ The consternation in The Nook was dreadful when she rushed back with the news that the prete was away for the day! What was to be done? She could not be allowed to die without prayers and candles! So all the hamlet was roused. Giulio Bettoni as the greater scholar and nearer to the priesthood, on the strength of having been an acolyte in his boyhood brought his mass-book, and, with his Sunday coat on, walked solemnly down the village to Beppa’s house. All the women donned there festa dresses and hunted out the ends of wax candles they had saved from funeral processions, and assembled round the bed of the old woman. Giulio read the prayers for a passing soul with a high monotonous voice, and the women stood with their lighted tapers all round the bed of the darkened room.

The married daughter from Mammiano, who had only arrived this morning, was weeping at the head of the bed, and with trembling hands held a crucifix before her gasping mother. The two younger ones were weeping in the next room. Her husband, the bearded Pietro, had hidden himself out of the house, with the usual Italian instinct of avoiding any disagreeable emotion. The good son, who had been the best and most tender nurse of all, still kept his place on her left, and, now wiping the dews off her forehead, then waving a fan to keep the flies away, gave his whole heart to easing the pains of his mother.

Such was the scene that the ‘Signora’, as the villagers call the English lady, came upon one morning. She knelt down solemnly with the rest; but when, as usual, she put her hand on the dying woman’s pulse, she found that death was not so near after all the faintness was passing. ‘You can wait for the priest, after all’, she said ‘Beppa has quite a strong pulse’. ‘But look at her face, Signora; she is dying’, said Giulio, half closing his book. ‘She has one of her heart attacks, but it is passing’; and the Signora, putting a spoonful of her broth to the lips of the patient, found it swallowed, and repeated it, till she said faintly, ‘Grazie, Signora, I am better again now’.

Domenico pressed the hand of the visitor, and went softly away to get over the revulsion of feeling. Giulio shut his book, the women blew out their candles, and went one by one away, to put on their working garments and go to the fields.

At last there came a day when she recovered nomore from the faintness; but the priest was there, and the faithful old soul was led by him to the brink of the dark river.

August 8th 1886. Interment follows death very quickly in Italy, and this evening the corpse, which has been surrounded by lighted tapers and watched by faithful friends all night, is now ready for burial. It lies on the table of the cottage room, dressed in its best print gown and brightest kerchief, and a crucifix clasped in its hands. Domenico and his sisters are weeping around, and neighbour after neighbour comes in to look seriously on the still, worn old face at rest. Outside on the ajcty. the poor old bent ‘Atropos’ sits on the low wall and shakes her palsied head, murmuring that ‘it was her turn before Beppa’s, and that she ought to have been called first’. Then she sighs, ‘Ah! why does not God want me too?’ ‘The children of the villa have spent all their morning in making a cross of flowers, which looks quite important when finished, and the two elder girls find some black veils and white frocks, and depart tojoin the procession.

We go to the old church of the Pieve, and from the outside pulpit are able to watch the procession the whole way across the valley. The Pieve which lies half way between The Nook and Piteglio, its mother parish is a rendezvous for others besides ourselves. From our exalted situation up the pulpit steps we see a little knot of people assembling beneath the spreading chestnut just below us. There are a number of men in their fustian working clothes, and of boys with jackets or without, and every one carries a little white bundle under his arm. One very old man carefully puts his white bundle as a cushion on a large stone, and sinks down tired out. ‘Oi! Oi!’ he exclaims, ‘my poor old legs won’t carry me any more. It will be my turn to be carried to the Campo Santo next’. ‘Here they come!’ cries a boy, pointing to a string of white figures coming down the woodland path from Piteglio, on the other side of the little valley. Then ensues a general stir and flutter, all the white bundles are shaken out, and lo! they turn into ephods, with which every man girds himself, and instead of a knot of shabby-looking peasants, they seem transformed into mediaeval saints. A very dirty old man forthwith becomes a venerable pilgrim the ragged little children are cherubs clad in celestial white. There is a large assembly of women and children, and the mothers are very busy putting white shirts over the tiny breeches of the baby boys in lieu of the girded ephod. Then comes the priest with the black banner grimly decorated with skull and cross-bones, and a long file of white-robed men following. All the assembly beneath us falls into rank, and the whole company march, like the white penitents of days gone by, amidst the corn, and are lost in the shadow of the trees round The Nook, where they are gone to fetch Beppa.

After a time, a distant sound of chanting and a glimmer of lights tell us that the procession is coming back. As it draws near, the women in the path and on the green in front of the disused church sink on their knees, with their babes in their arms and little girls clinging to their aprons, and we do the same. In front come 130 white-robed men and boys in couples, in diminishing file, till they end in tiny toddles hand-in-hand. Then the priest and his acolytes chanting; next the two girls from the villa, with a little child between them carrying the floral cross uplifted; then the bier carried by men in white ephods, and accompanied by eight women in black veils carrying candles; then more women with tapers.

Nothing can be more lovely or poetical than this long procession of simple peasants through the winding paths of the cornfield, down the valley where the evening sun tints their white robes rosy red, and next across the bridge into the deep shadows of the dark wood on the other side, and then toiling withlaboured steps up the steep street to the church. It is like an acted allegory of the soul’s passage through life and death. The bells ring ‘a doppio’ a stormy pealing all together; the church is reached, and the black cloth cover being removed from the bier, the assembled crowd take their last look at the quiet old face, while the priest reads the prayers and sprinkles her with holy water.

Then the tapers are extinguished, and the last journey is made to the Campo Santo, where a coffin awaits. She is tenderly lifted in and nailed down, and deposited in the newly-dug grave. Two friends of the family, who followed behind the procession with mysterious little baskets on their arms, according to custom, now go about among the crowd giving pennies to each white-robed person, and to the holders of candles. All this is Domenico’s generosity, for he will not stint his last expense for his mother.

Many of the intimate friends return the money afterwards, but most of them keep it. Domenico and his friends keep vigil in the empty house, the daughters fly to their neighbours for comfort and consolation and so poor old Beppa has passed out of our lives.

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