“The Wake” is the third in a series of 1990 skits from “My Corner of Boston” performed at the North End Union, produced by resident Rosaria DiFinzio. See all the scenes here.
Wakes and funerals were a big deal in the Italian North End. When I was a kid there were a dozen funeral homes and they all seemed busy. Italians generally patronized funeral homes associated with their city or province in Italy. Many North Enders, including my father’s family, came from Avellino and one of the Avellenese funeral homes was owned by my uncles Arthur and Fred. Wakes were social events where old friends met, gossip was exchanged and young people of marriageable age were introduced to one another.
When jobs were scarce young men would hang around the local funeral homes hoping to make a few bucks driving a limo or picking up a new customer. One day a call came in to my uncle’s place on Prince Street that an elderly man had died. Freddie sent my father and two other guys, Cusho Lombardozzi and one of the Malvarosa brothers, to pick up the deceased and bring him to the funeral home. When they got to the house they found that the body was on the fifth floor and the man had been dead for two days. This wasn’t unusual because families would often wait for relatives to gather and say good by to the deceased and the women of the family would like to bath and dress the body. Well, by that time rigor mortis had set in and carrying the body down the narrow, winding stairway was impossible so they decided to lower it out a window. A rope was found and they wrapped the dead man in a sheet and started lowering him down. The widow was hanging out of an adjacent window wailing and a crowd had gathered to watch the drama unfold. Of course the rope broke, the dead man fell three stories to the ground and the widow tried throwing herself out of the window to follow her husband into eternity. Street theatre at it’s finest.
Holding a wake in the summer posed a different set of difficulties. In the heat and humidity of the North End bodies would deteriorate quickly even if embalmed. Funeral directors would use a double bottomed casket and pack the lower compartment with ice. An abundance of flowers would help mask the odor. This is why some of the first air conditioned businesses in the North End were the funeral homes and Rosaria captures this beautifully in the skit we are presenting today.
If you missed the previous skits from Rosaria’s My Corner of Boston, see all the scenes here.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage 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.