The funeral of Donna Grazia

In October 2019, I spent a month in southern Italy. I stayed with a friend’s family in a small village between Naples and the Amalfi Coast. In addition to many practical experiences such as olive picking and wine production, I attended the funeral of a woman. Here is my report of the day.


We are sitting in the car, heading south from Naples in the darkness before dawn with a three-hour drive ahead of us. A song is playing on the radio. It’s about drinking coffee and love.

Cyclists are on country roads. On the way to work, to the fields, to the greenhouses, in this land of artichokes and mozzarella di buffala. I think about how many people will be enjoying these exquisite dishes today, in the chic hotels of the Amalfi Coast, less than 50 km away, and not give a thought to the circumstances under which their fine food is produced and by whom. Actually, no one should (have to) drive on a country road at 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning without lights ahead of a 14-hour shift.

The sun slowly rises. Wasteland all around us. Semi-finished concrete structures with sales signs. Greenhouses, car dealerships, people’s houses next to the road. As always, you drive 30-40kmh faster than permitted. Luckily there is still little traffic, I think, as a car in front of us swerves into the oncoming lane for a few seconds. “Cell phone or sleep,” my host parents say.

We stop in the small town of Santa Cecilia and have breakfast in a bar surrounded by workers eating the famous zeppole, small fried sweet pastries.

After a while, we leave the plain again. It goes up a bit. We drive through a tunnel. When we come out, we find ourselves in the middle of the clouds. I can only see the bridge we are crossing and can still make out little of the landscape.

We are in a national park. Everything feels a bit more peaceful again, I’m thinking less about politics here. You can now see some archaeological Greek buildings, kiwi plantations and olives again and again. Then nothing but dense forests. Wow. Only bridges and tunnels. Views of wide valleys that stretch all the way to the coast. Individual stone houses on the slopes.


Finally, we head down to the coast for the last time. Past beaches where the Germans go on vacation in early summer and the Italians in midsummer, as I am told. Then up steep hairpin bends again. We catch sight of our destination: the mountain village of Lentiscosa, illuminated by the morning sun.

We are early. After greeting the family that will entomb their sister, mother and grandmother, Mrs. Grazia Perazzo, today, I take a stroll through the village. I drink a cappuccino in the bar opposite the church, where I already see flower arrangements. The atmosphere in the small village street in front of the family’s house is staid. Bells ringing. The son fetches coffee from the bar for those already present.

Il funerale

Around half past nine we head towards the end of the village. The hearse is waiting there, having arrived in her hometown overnight from Milan, where the deceased lived. The atmosphere is again very staid. It’s that typical, sad and beautiful greeting when old acquaintances meet again for this special occasion. I hesitate at first with my camera, then shoot from a distance and usually from the hip.

The hearse now moves forward a few meters. Then the priest arrives and the tailgate is opened. He says a few words that are largely incomprehensible to me. Then the car starts moving again and the large mourning party walks very slowly through the narrow village street towards the church. A shiver runs down my spine.

The service feels long and the priest’s words sound a bit harsh to me at first. Preaching from above, with a sharp rolled Italian “r” and a few minutes of talk about holiness and marriage. Then his talk becomes more personal, telling of the life and character of the deceased. You can tell that he knew her for a long time. This woman who left her small village for Milan alone in the 1950s and set up and expanded a restaurant where all her children have been working for a long time. I also learned from later conversations with acquaintances what a well-known and cheerful, but above all inspiring and important personality Grazia must have been for many people.

After the ceremony, we move slowly towards the cemetery. The coffin is first laid out there. A long queue, lots of hugs, warm words, goodbyes. Many old people stand together. I am introduced to several people and often receive astonished comments about how skinny I am… the topics of food, weight and appearance are constantly present. Here too.


I’m not sure what comes next. As I find out later, we had actually planned to return now. But as close acquaintances, my host parents (and I) are invited by the family to have lunch with them. On the third floor of an ancient house, I’m once again presented with a very Italian scene: the women in the kitchen, the men hanging out on the sofa and only allowed to help set the table. I say “may” because I am kindly reprimanded when I want to give a hand. Well, I’m also a guest – so helping is even less an option.

First there is a plate of pasta al sugo, then polpette al sugo, then salsicce con patate. Served with pane, mozzarella and vino rosso. This is followed by the obligatory espresso. Then everyone is well fed.

An aunt says to her nephew: “You’ve put on a few kilos too.” This comment leads to him pulling up his T-shirt at the table, slapping his stomach and saying: “Come on, it’s not that much bigger…”

I go up to the roof terrace, smoke a cigarette and gaze at the view. We then take a walk through the centre of the old town. The higher you climb the mountain, the more deserted the alleyways and the more dilapidated the houses. Sad and beautiful. I am reminded of news reports about Italian villages where houses are being sold at symbolic prices to attract new residents.


In the early afternoon, we head back towards the cemetery with around 25 close relatives for the entombment. The coffin is heaved into a solid wall, three sweating masons close and plaster the tomb in three quarters of an hour. The sun is blazing and the mood is visibly relaxed. People have said their goodbyes and conversations are once again mainly about life and memories. About work, plans, travel, visits.

Eventually we say goodbye and arrive back in Alberi after a five-hour drive with lots of traffic jams. A long day comes to an end and a short night begins. The next morning at 6 am, our 250 kg of picked olives are to be taken to the oil press.

© Tilman Vogler Fotografie 2024

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