Five-minute memoir: Filippo Bologna recalls a case of mistaken identity by a nervous Italian undertaker

The man's expression changed. He started sweating and he seemed unable to control his emotions'

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The Independent Culture

My girlfriend’s father was an actor. Five years ago he was operated on for a tumour. After that he led a normal life, although he underwent chemotherapy treatment from time to time. Last year, having been cast as a Pope in a TV drama, he decided to suspend chemo because it was making his hair fall out and causing rashes on his face. That was the beginning of the end.

In January his condition worsened: the disease had spread through his body and was now inoperable. In March he was hospitalised. From that point on, my girlfriend and I spent our days running back and forth to the hospital.

The Roman spring had no pity on the sick. The dazzling green fields, dotted with blue and yellow flowers, shimmered beyond the windows of his eighth-floor room. But he didn’t look outside: the consummate actor that he was, he continued to act. To him, this hospital stay was a nuisance, and he would consult his diary, crammed with non-existent appointments, and plan imaginary tours that would take him well beyond the limits of even the most optimistic prognosis. He was simulating a future to make the present more bearable.

When his condition deteriorated, he was transferred from the hospital to a clinic specialising in palliative care. An uninterrupted procession of friends came to his sickbed, bringing chocolates, magazines, pairs of pyjamas, but he would simply look at these without any interest. An actress brought a stubby, menacing-looking cactus, claiming that it would drive away negative energies. It was after the arrival of that cactus that things rapidly took a turn for the worse. The patient went into a coma and died within a few hours.

While my girlfriend, distraught with grief, was bombarded by endless phone calls, the more bureaucratic aspect fell to me: to sort out the funeral. I remembered an undertaker’s not far from where we lived: I had long been mildly curious about its dim lighting and grim furnishings. I summoned up my courage and went in. A bell echoed in the empty office. I coughed to attract attention. From above came a man’s voice, muttering something incomprehensible. Anxiously, I waited for the footsteps to become feet on the stairs, the feet to become legs, the legs to become a trunk with arms and a head. In front of me there now appeared a man of about 50, with long curly hair tumbling over his shoulders.

He sat down behind the desk and motioned to me to sit down, too. “An important man has passed away,” I began. “I've come on behalf of the family,” I continued in a solemn tone. “The funeral will be a public event and I’d like a ceremony with full honours. How much do you think it’ll cost?”

The man’s expression changed. He started sweating and he seemed unable to control his emotions. “It d-d-d-depends…” the man said, making an unprecedented effort that caused him to stammer. He mentioned “ch-ch-cherrywood c-c-caskets with b-b-brass f-f-fittings and s-s-satin l-l-lining” and a “M-M-Mercedes h-h-earse with air c-c-conditioning”.

By the time he had given me his quote, I was as exhausted as if I had been the one stammering. I thanked him and left, my head spinning from listening to his stammer and from the astronomical quote. To recover, I went into a bar and ordered a coffee. The TV was broadcasting a news bulletin. All the channels carried the same news: Giulio Andreotti had died.

Senator for life, seven times prime minister, 20 times a minister, the most influential politician in the history of the Italian Republic, the man who knew the darkest secrets of state, the man tried – and acquitted – for his alleged ties to the Mafia, was a mere mortal.

All at once, the reason for the undertaker’s nervousness became clear. My words had been filled with possible double meanings; he had thought he was within a stone’s throw of the biggest coup of his career: arranging the funeral of Andreotti.

I smiled, thinking of the joke that fate had played on my girlfriend’s father: the star who had never tolerated anyone more famous than him on stage had had his last round of applause stolen from him by Il Divo.

The next day, the newspapers would be full of Andreotti, and he himself would get only a standard, long-prepared obituary in the arts section.

If we want our death to be a big hit, we have to choose the right day to stage it.

‘The Parrots’ by Filippo Bologna is published by Pushkin Press, £14.99 hardback