Whenever I tell people I have lived in the North End for almost seventy years they invariably ask two questions; where should I eat and how has the area changed? The answer to the first one is easy, eat where the longest lines are, the hive knows. The answer to the second one is more difficult because the North End was always in flux, but certainly one of the most profound changes is in the number and type of storefront businesses.
For a hundred years, the North End was the center of Italian American life in Massachusetts. The culture and traditions of Southern Italian towns were transplanted here and the local shops catered to the needs and desires of these paesani. One of the most important services was that of the undertaker which is the subject of this essay because my family has been involved in the funeral business for almost a hundred years.
The picture I am sharing with you was taken on a beautiful summer day, probably in 1934, when the country was in the middle of a terrible Depression. Banks were failing, millions of people were out of work, every city had food lines and here is my uncle Arthur, movie star handsome, dressed in a tuxedo, leaning on his new Packard sedan. Note the spats on his shoes. I think this was the day Arthur got married, July 4, 1934. Arthur is on the left, the cute, curly haired boy in the middle is our cousin the great Angelo Picardi, the finest vocalist ever to come out of the North End. I was with Angelo a few weeks ago, he looks and sounds great. You can watch him on You Tube. The fellow on the right is unknown, one of the many “gualione” of the North End. Behind Arthur is the funeral parlor he ran with his brother Fred which was on the South side of Prince St. near the corner of Hanover. The sign mentions a religious goods store which was around the corner on Hanover St. where Mike’s Pastry is. It was called the Helio Light Company and they sold all sorts of statues, holy cards and medals and other items used in the Roman Catholic liturgy. On the far right the man in the straw hat is Angelo’s father standing in front of his business, Dello Russo Florist.
Funerals were serious business in Italian American life and were solemn affairs. Wakes would go on for days and family and friends would come from near and far to mourn with the family. In the summer time they would pack ice in the coffin, under the corpse, to retard decomposition. Every wake had lots of flowers, probably to mask the odor but also out of respect for the deceased. A small funeral cortege would have one flower car but many had two or even three. At the cemetery there was always a scene when the coffin was lowered into the ground. It was so common for the widows or daughters to jump down into the grave they had to have ambulances standing by to take the injured to the hospital.
In 1939 Arthur and Fred moved the funeral home across the street to Ida (Dello Russo) and Tony Lombardozzi’s building where they could have two chapels and an embalming table in the cellar. My father, the black sheep of the family, would sometimes use the embalming table as a bed if it was unoccupied. It was also used for crap games and one day the crowd from Bee Gee’s social club across the street decided to have a game. About ten of the guys started down the steps. When the first one turned on the lights it startled my father who sat up opened his eyes and moaned. The boys thought a corpse had been resurrected and ran down Prince St. screaming and yelling.
Arthur went on to become mayor of Medford and the funeral home, now on Main St. in Medford, is run by Fred’s grandsons. Only one funeral home remains in the North End and that is not even locally owned.
I want to issue a challenge to those who read this and think they know North End history. I’ve given Matt Conti a gift card for the Cafe Paradiso. The winner will be the one who can remember the names of the most North End funeral homes, where they were located and what occupies the spaces today. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your answers. In the case of a tie, the one that responded first will win the gift card.
Good luck and Matt will determine the winner in two weeks.
Nick Dello Russo