Funeral directors sometimes appear in books and films, but they're rarely important characters. You don't get much insight into their work or personalities. This makes Mario Puzo's book The Godfather unusual, because it doesn't just have an important character who is a funeral director, it treats him with sympathy and understanding.
The funeral director is called Amerigo Bonasera. Puzo chose that name carefully: the "Amerigo" is a reference to the way the funeral director has tried to become a good American, and the surname "Bonasera" literally means "It will be good" in Italian. This is a reference to something that many people will find strange: Puzo says that Bonasera's "work had made him an optimist". He faces death every day as part of his work and it has taught him to put the troubles of everyday life in their proper perspective. We must all pass away one day, so why be unhappy while we are still here?
Puzo also describes how good Bonasera is at his work. He takes pride in carrying it out with the highest standards of care and professionalism. He is famous for his skill at "making the dead look lifelike in their coffins." But he himself knows that the technical side of undertaking is only half of the story and isn't the one most appreciated by his customers. Even more important is the ceremonial and psychological side: Bonasera is there to provide comfort and reassurance to grieving families, and to ensure that they and the departed are treated with dignity and respect. He dresses carefully and keeps his expression "grave, yet strong and comforting." He speaks quietly but with authority and, after many years of experience, is able to deal quickly and effectively with any problems that arise in the course of his business.
The effort and care he puts into his work is rewarded, because his customers pay him the ultimate tribute: "Once a family used Amerigo Bonasera to speed a loved one on, they came to him again and again." Almost all of this is lost in the film of The Godfather, because films have much less time to build an imaginative world than books do. They also concentrate, for obvious reasons, on things that are interesting to the eye and the ear. Books can deal with hidden thoughts and feelings too, which is why Amerigo Bonasera comes alive in the book in a way he doesn't in the film. He is one of the most interesting and likeable characters. For millions of readers, his story has offered a valuable insight into a profession that many people prefer not to think about.
It's understandable that they prefer this. Death can be a disturbing and ugly thing, even when it comes to us at the expected time, in old age. But that is why undertaking is a vital profession: it can't take away the grief and pain of loss, but it can ensure that our farewell to a loved one is calm and dignified. Like all western nations, Britain has an ageing population, so funerals will happen more often and become a more familiar experience. Because of this, funeral plans will become more familiar too. And, as Amerigo Bonasera knew in The Godfather, the technical side of funeral planning - the questions of finance and funeral arrangements - is only half of the story. Funeral plans have psychological importance too. They allow us to face what is ahead and accept it, whether the funeral plan is for ourselves or for a loved one. Death will come to us all, so it's wise to be prepared and to ensure now that our funerals will be conducted exactly as we want them to be.