Our story begins in Southern Italy from where almost all North Enders originated especially the hill towns surrounding Avellino and Sicily. The Italians who traveled to America were desperately poor and led an agrarian life which had changed little since the Middle Ages. The voyage itself was perilous and they all traveled in Third Class or steerage. I remember my grandmother telling me of constant sea sickness, pregnant women having miscarriages and dead bodies being thrown overboard. She said they were allowed to go on deck only once a day for fresh air, when the upper class passengers were eating supper. Worse things happened, especially to the women, but she wouldn’t discuss those.
These were landless peasants, “contadini”, who farmed land owned by absentee landlords, the “signori”, who lived in Naples, Rome or Turin. Their sons were regularly conscripted into the army and sent to fight in wars about which they knew nothing. By coming to l’America they could leave this brutal life behind, a life they called “la miseria,” and have an opportunity to work, earn a living and feed their families. (One of the best books written about the daily life of Southern Italian paesani during the interwar years is; “Christ Stopped at Ebboli” by Carlo Levi.)
In the world of poor Southern Italians, death was an ever present reality. Women died in childbirth, young men went off to war never to return and infections such as malaria were rampant. The rituals surrounding death were an important part of peasant life. In Italy, peasani burials were simple affairs, dictated by the impoverished circumstances of the family. By contrast, the wealthy landowners had spectacular funerals with elaborate coffins, long wakes, marching bands, professional mourners, cascades of flowers and, most important of all, impressive monuments. It’s completely understandable that Italian immigrants would try and imitate these funerals as a symbol of their success in l’America.
The opening of St. Michael’s Cemetery in Jamaica Plain was a landmark event for Boston’s Italian community. At last, they could bury their loved ones in a proper manner and, most important of all, erect a fitting monument demonstrating their devotion and worldly success. It also afforded them a pleasant place to go on Sunday afternoons, a place where they could get out of the city and enjoy some country air.
In Part II, I will talk more about the significance of the gravestones of St. Michael’s Cemetery.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.