Friday, October 03, 2008

Wake Albanian style

This week I attended, for the second time in my life, a wake in the Bronx, where Albanians are one of the largest ethnic groups residing in this borough of New York City.

I thought I knew what to expect since I had participated in a similar occurrence in 1996, in the same area. In both instances the departed were distant relatives of mine on the paternal side, whom I met less than a dozen years ago, when I began to collect a large amount of data for my family tree.

Since then, I learned a lot about traditional customs of Albanian life, because I was not exposed to it since I was five years old. Due to WWII I grew up in totally different environments, and I did not discover existing paternal relationships until recent years. Thus, whenever I get involved in large gatherings of Albanians here in the U.S., I never cease to be surprised by new, and very interesting experiences, when I become exposed to, and more familiar with, historical details, especially about my ancestors. Albanians are endowed with extraordinary memory, and are masters in oral history, which they faithfully transmit from one generation to another within their family units!

This week, therefore, when I went to the funeral parlor, I knew I had to express my condolences to the relatives that line up at the entrance, in single file, men first, followed by women (with black head scarves), all positioned according to the level of relationship with the deceased. They sit on chairs, also lined up behind them, and stand up as visitors approach, and are quietly announced by a couple of young family members that stand guard at the door.

I also knew that there would be relatives not from this area. It is customary that for any important family happening, relatives of all sorts travel even long distances to attend whatever function has been planned, whether it's a wedding, a birth, or a funeral. That's why, also in this case, I was able to see again relatives I met overseas, and others that reside in other U.S. cities.

A new experience this time, however, was seeing two people that, in separate sessions,lasting about 15 minutes each, chanted, in rhyme format, and all from memory, dozens of names of living and dead relatives. The woman, who was hired, was prepped for this service by some family members just minutes before the performance, while the man was a relative knowledgeable about the past deaths in the family.

Contrary to what I have seen at other funeral parlors recently, where people usually roam around, chat and visit in a pretty loud voice, this wake was quite structured, and extremely low key, except for the momentarily loud sobbing that the women could not refrain from, during the chanting. Throughout the entire time, the younger women made the rounds, offering glasses of water and paper handkerchiefs.

This is what happened at this wake, in an American funeral parlor. The wake I participated in 1996 instead, took place in a hired hall, 2 months after the actual funeral in Montenegro, obviously to accommodate the very large number of relatives living in the U.S. There I let a family member lead me through the line up of relatives, and I discovered later on that I was the subject of special treatment when it came to sitting down. Men and women were clustered at separate tables, and I, out of deference, was offered a seat between the 2 groups! Then, I was totally surrounded by the younger generations, who, while taking turns to serve everyone with food, raki, and cigarettes, were eager to get to know me, and I.... learned from them how to connect the lines in the enlarged family tree!! It was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience.

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