Thomas Mitchell, a retired Arlington roofer, was buried last Thursday. While his relatives equipped him for the afterlife by tossing coins and bills into his coffin and pouring whiskey onto his grave, police officers in an unmarked cruiser wrote down the license plate numbers on the mourners' cars and snapped photographs.
Yet neither the curiosity of the police nor the manner in which Mitchell was bid farewell came as a surprise to those at the funeral. For Mitchell was the leader of a clan of gypsies that numbers in the thousands, and he was laid to rest next to his father Louis, the last of the Mitchell gypsy kings.
The magnitude of the event was such that it drew nearly 200 gypsies from the District, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, Alabama, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania; for much of last week they paid their last respects to the 61-year-old Mitchell at an Arlington funeral home and then at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast Washington.
"The news about Tom dying went out quicker than a teletype. That's the way gypsies are and we are one of the biggest gypsy families there is," said Stan Mitchell, a cousin from Sarasota, Fla. Indeed, relatives and friends began arriving at the Arlington Funeral Home on North Fairfax Drive the morning after Mitchell's death Oct. 10 following a heart attack. Then, last Wednesday, with the permission of the funeral home's managers, some family members held an all-night vigil around the coffin. In some ways, it was the death knell of an old tradition, too.
"When Louis died in 1972 , the tradition of the king was getting weaker," said Stan Mitchell. "We don't really believe in the word 'king' anymore, but Tom, he was the family leader. When he was around, we listened to him."
Jim Mitchell, Tom's younger brother, believes the era of kingdom in the family is over. Family matters in Florida, for example, no longer will be subject to a decision made by someone hundreds or thousands of miles away, he said. Power now will be parceled out rather than passed on.
"It'll be more spread out now," he said.
Ely Mitchell, of Baltimore, said there were "five times as many" people at the ceremonies for Louis Mitchell when he died in 1972. Even so, at times last week more than 300 people filled the first floor of the funeral home as those present used the occasion not only for mourning and reflection but also as a family reunion.
Today, there are gypsies living all over the United States, and their traditions are still strongly nomadic, much as they were when the first began migrating into Europe from India as early as the 14th century and into the U.S. 200 years ago. As a result, it is difficult to know just how many are in the country and estimates of their numbers accordingly vary, ranging from 200,000 to 1 million. Their history is one of persecution and ostracism, both here and abroad. In Europe under Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, for instance, nearly 500,000 European gypsies were exterminated.
When they first arrived in the United States, families like the Mitchells took on American-sounding names and, with time, spread across the country. There are numerous clans in the United States. Those bearing the names Baxter, Kaslov, Marks and Mitchell have especially large contingents in the Washington area.
John Tene, founder of a U.N.-sponsored gypsy group, Romania of Massachusettes Incorporated, and a member of the Tene Bimbo gypsy family, said the Mitchells are one of the largest American families. He estimated that there may be as many as 20,000 gypsy Mitchells.
"Gypsies are in Washington, in Arlington -- they're all over," said Tene, who lives in Boston. "But they tend to try to blend because they never have had any respect or a piece of the turf. . . . People ask us, 'Where's your wagon, where's your pots and pans and violin?' People look at the old movies and see Shirley Temple yelling, 'Mama, are the gypsies going to steal me away?' "
While European gypsies have become more politically organized and have placed many persons in professional positions, Tene said the "thief and caravan image" persists in the United States.
In fact, the police snapping photos of the Mitchell funeral last week were there, they said, because they were looking for a family member who was wanted for a home-improvement scam in the South. The person did not appear, the officer said. But gypsies are sensitive to their bad image and several family members became embroiled in a loud argument with the officers, demanding that they leave. The police remained, however, and continued to take pictures.
"It makes us mad but there's not much we can do about it," said Jim Mitchell.
Their suspicion of the outside world runs deep. When gajos, the gypsy word for outsiders, came within earshot at the funeral, fluent English turned to fluent, guttural Romany, the hybrid Romance language developed after centuries of nomadic life, especially in Eastern Europe. It is still spoken by most American gypsies among themselves.
"It's like with any other group," said Ely Mitchell. "There's always some who aren't straight. We're not special. Gypsies are like anyone else. We are normal people, we eat at McDonald's. We live, we die and we have rituals."
The air was thick with tradition and ritual at Tom Mitchell's funeral. Smoky incense filled the room. While the women talked with one another, sat in silence or took naps, the men drank beer and whiskey and reminisced about Thomas Mitchell.
In their midst was Mitchell's copper casket, surrounded by ornate floral reproductions of a Winston cigarette pack, a car and the Playboy bunny symbol.
The funeral ceremonies began with a 30-minute service at St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church in Falls Church. Father Stephan Bogolea, who presided over the service and later at the cemetery, said, "These people travel, they come and go. But Tom was the godfather of all the children you see here."
To the right of the cemetery entrance there are a number of monuments commemorating Mitchell family members, including Tom's father, Louis, the last acknowledged king. When the mourners arrived there for the burial, they were met by an accordian and saxophone duet playing, "Oh How We Danced."
Both of Mitchell's daughters and his wife stood by the grave and wept as the duo played and Father Bogolea chanted. An older man handed a teen-aged boy two $100 bills. The boy returned with food, ice, Royal Crown whiskey and bottles of Schlitz beer.
Some of the mourners planned to sit on the grass by the grave for a couple of hours, eating, drinking and getting reacquainted.
"We drink at our funerals and we pour beer or juice or whiskey on the grave as a farewell or a toast," said Jim Mitchell.