Authors: Eve Joseph
In Judaism, life always takes precedence over death. If a funeral procession meets a wedding procession at the crossroads, the wedding procession always has the right of way. But then again, the rabbis have a few qualifications: this applies only if there are not sufficient people at the funeral procession. And how many are sufficient?
Twelve thousand men and six thousand trumpets
, saith Samuel.
“The disconsolate are the masters of consolation,” says American writer and critic Leon Wieseltier. “They offer sympathy without illusion.” Sorrow, he says, wants nothing but sorrow.
“Think,” muses my friend Miriam, “what we lost when we changed our parlours into TV rooms.” The parlour, from
“to speak,” was a room for private conversations; it was the room we were not allowed to enter—the room with floral settees, heavy drapes and a piano with sheet music propped up on the closed keyboard. A room of awkward suitors and afternoon teas, and the one room in the house where visitors would come to pay their respects to the body laid out in an open casket on a catafalque beside a slightly open window. The large-scale use of funeral homes, or funeral parlours, changed the connotation of the word
as a room in the house. No longer would a parlour in a person’s home be associated with a wake, death or mourning, but it could now be a room for the living, or
The room that was off limits to us is now the room of the flat screen and the recliner.
We have become uneasy, almost indifferent mourners. No women in black wailing for us. No throwing ourselves on our loved ones’ graves or climbing into the coffin, as my friend’s daughter did when her father died. No husband like the one in the German film
who, when his wife dies before her dream of visiting Japan is realized, dresses in her clothing and turns circles beneath the blossoms falling like snow in Tokyo.
If there are two mourners, ruled Hayyim ben Isaac in the late thirteenth century, “the one should leave his house and visit the other.” This morning, browsing through the obituaries in the paper, I notice that nearly every one ends with an invitation to email the funeral home with condolences for the family. One of the funeral home sites I check has an online guest book; if you click on a name, you can live-stream the funeral. In the West, we extend our condolences in lieu of
consolation. Sympathy in lieu of solace. Sympathy relies on words—Hallmark cards with their sentimental clichés; solace has a more muscular reliance on silence. For those who are connected, hundreds of friends offer condolences on Facebook, and, should you need it, there is an online site with hints on how to express sympathy:
say something simple or admit you don’t have a clue what to say and for heaven’s sake keep your religious beliefs to yourself.
I admit to a bias: it is better, I think, that one should leave one’s house and visit the other. That we should
go with some show of inconvenience.
That we should
sit openly to weather as to grief.
When I ask my daughter, Leigh, who is well versed in social media, about her thoughts on virtual condolences, she says she understands that her generation turns to Facebook almost reflexively when there is a death. “There is an instant response,” she says. “The intention to console is there, but there is no longevity.” Online condolences are written for a public audience; once sent, they simply become the latest post. CBC reporter Colleen Ross was shocked to find out that a friend she hadn’t seen for several years had died. When she checked on Facebook, she found pages of condolences, some of which were written directly to her friend: “OMG … RIP SOOOO sorry to hear of your passing.” “Luv n thoughts r w u, I hope u r @ peace wherever u r.”
What, I wonder, would the good Hayyim ben Isaac have made of that?
Architects of Loss
When Claudia was a young woman living in Canberra, a friend of hers died suddenly after mistakenly eating an Angel of Death, or death cap mushroom. Nobody in their group of friends had a clue how to organize a funeral, says Claudia, “but the words
duty of care
came to us somehow.” Three words that guided everything they did for their friend in the short period of time they had to do it in. I thought about this after she told me, thought about the tension inherent in those three words: a tug between the obligation embedded in
and the implied tenderness lying dormant in
Joined in the middle by a preposition expressing a relationship between a part and a whole. Between what we do and how we do it.
The strangers who will handle our bodies and prepare them for burial or cremation are invisible to us. We don’t see them until we need them. Their work is the subject of horror films and ghost stories. We don’t dwell too much on the details—what they do or how they do it—we just know that, at some point in our lives, we will call them or someone will call them on our behalf. Over the years I worked with the dying, I became curious about the people who arrived at all hours of the day and night to pick up the bodies of the deceased, and curious about how the dead were treated. In particular, I wondered what happens to the most vulnerable amongst us.
In Amsterdam every year, up to twenty people die anonymously. They come from all walks of life: educated, uneducated, some criminals—drug mules and murderers—some
who just fell on hard times, their bodies found on the streets, in canals, in empty shipping containers and rooming houses. Most are poor, but not all; some have simply outlived everybody in their lives. There is nobody to claim their bodies or bury them—a fact so distressing to civil servant Ger Frits that, twenty-five years ago, he started conducting what have now become known as lonely funerals. At the Saint Barbara Chapel, on a quiet street at the edge of town, Frits has held over five hundred services to say goodbye on behalf of the community when there is nobody else to do so. He places flowers on the casket at the front of the church and chooses one of his favourite classical pieces to play. He hires four pallbearers, and in recent years he has been accompanied by the poet Frank Starik, who was so taken by the idea that he approached Frits in 2002 and has been writing a poem for each funeral ever since.
, he wrote at his first service,
I say goodbye on the road to nowhere
To the final country where everyone is welcomed in
Where nothing need know your origin.
It doesn’t matter to Ger Frits that there will be nobody to see the flowers that he brings. “These flowers are not for me, they are not for visitors, they are for the person who passed away,” he says with a hint of irritation in his voice. “It’s for respect.” Neither man is religious, although Frits laughs when he says it can’t hurt for someone to put a good word in at heaven’s gate.
Without papers, without identity.
What were you looking for?
How much did you lose along the way?
Strangers today have come to represent the “other.” We see them sleeping in doorways and hear about them stealing our children; in cities, we walk amongst strangers forgetting that, to others, we are the stranger. A couple of times a year I’m called to the ICU to try to help find the family of an unidentified patient. Most often they are males; some have identification, most don’t. Sometimes we find a distant relative, someone with whom contact was lost or severed years ago; sometimes there are no leads at all, and the person dies without anybody to notify.
One of our essential qualities, says Starik, is our need for story. He believes the lonely funerals return stories to the people who somehow lost them along the way. What story can I tell about the critically ill, unidentified patients I’m sometimes called to see? The only story left is the story of their death. In the end, we are distilled to the smallest physical detail. Nurses record the minutiae of final hours on the chart: blood pressure, oxygen level, level of consciousness, heart rate, time of death. Sometimes they write that it was quiet and they sat with the patient in the middle of the night. Once, when a woman was taking her last breaths, her estranged son called and we put the phone to her ear and he was able to speak to her on her way out. The last thing she heard was her son’s voice. Most often, nobody calls.
In North Vancouver in the 1950s, church bells tolled
regularly for funeral services. It was not unusual for shop owners to close their doors for a couple of hours to attend the funeral of a friend, or for community members to go to the service of someone they’d heard about but had never met. The “strange” who lived amongst us were not necessarily strangers. Every day “Nature Boy,” a man in his fifties, shirtless, with a long matted beard, rumoured to live in a cave at the foot of Grouse Mountain, ran barefoot by our house. Eccentricity and danger were not inextricably linked. The woman who lived three doors down from us painted large canvases all night and wore a nun’s habit during the day. When she died, the whole neighbourhood came out to say goodbye.
The problem of what to do with the bodies of strangers is at least as old as the Bible. In the past, the poor were often buried in potter’s fields—tracts of land that were worthless for growing food. The original one, known as the Field of Blood, is believed to have been in the clay-rich Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem—bought with the thirty pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot was paid to betray Jesus and which he returned to the priests before hanging himself. With that money, the priests
took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in
(Matthew 27:7). In Ross Bay Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Victoria, Section F, known as a potter’s field, was used mostly for the destitute, the unidentified, stillborn babies and convicts.
I call Lorraine again, at the Royal Oak Burial Park, to ask what happens to the unidentified and others who die alone in Victoria; what, I wonder, do contemporary potter’s fields look like? I now think of Lorraine as my “source.” I expect
to hear that the bodies are cremated or buried in mass graves, but am surprised when she tells me they are buried throughout the cemetery in the most economical areas, generally along the perimeter on the roadside, but she tries whenever possible to choose a good site. She buries the young close to each other. “I like to nestle them together,” she says. There was nothing on these graves when Lorraine started working ten years ago, but each now has a flower vase and most have small concrete markers. Infants are buried in fraction plots all over the park—tucked into the little spaces between graves.
The first funeral Lorraine attended at Royal Oak was for a man who had outlived his family and friends but who had left detailed instructions in his will as to how to conduct his funeral, including which hymns to play and scriptures to read, along with the kind of casket and the flowers he wanted placed on top. Lorraine made sure everything was done as he wanted, and then she dressed in a suit and attended the funeral along with the minister who gave the service. The two of them in the empty church. In the past, whenever she drove the coach for the funeral of a homeless person, she made sure to wear her white gloves as a sign of respect. I am surprised to find out there are lonely funerals being conducted so close to home.
Who, then, loved you? In which rooms did you sleep, who kissed you good night?
“If we find a mound six feet long and three feet wide in the forest, formed into a pyramid, shaped by a shovel, we become solemn and something tells us: somebody lies buried here.—This is architecture!” So said the Austro-Hungarian architect
Adolf Loos. From the small family plots that are disappearing on the prairies to the monuments that hold human history—Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, “the Wall” in Washington, D.C., the Memorial to the Disappeared in Santiago, Chile, through public memorials such as Strawberry Fields in Central Park—architecture is an art form that uses light and space as its raw materials and points to the dwelling places of the living and the dead. As with poetry, it is a kind of translation—of the world and ourselves in it. Not all—but some—architects are poets.
How does one begin to create a space for the dead? What thoughts come? How is it different from creating a space for the living? For some people, a place to remember the dead is important; for others, it is of no consequence. The Bedouin are said to bury their dead in the desert with anonymous and temporary markers that the sands efface over time. Their home, then, becomes the desert itself—the shifting sands forming and reforming in a way that makes spirit visible.
I first met Bill Pechet at the Woods Columbaria in Capilano View Cemetery in West Vancouver, where we went for a walk together. At the entrance to the Columbaria, which he designed, is a concrete seat—“a bus stop for ghosts,” laughs Pechet—above which these lines from a poem by the late John Glassco are engraved on a granite slab:
Think of the refuge, the point of sky, the certain castle, the certain presence.
Ringed by salal, huckleberry, ferns, hemlock and fir, the clusters of columbaria—or little niches for cinerary urns—are topped with concrete roofs shaped like old funerary beds, and the clusters, each holding the ashes of fifty-six people, have names such as Cypress, Moss and Salal—“so that people
can feel they are resting in a home with a name,” says Pechet.
According to Catholic tradition, ashes must be placed in sepulchral vaults with recesses in the walls—from the Latin
, “a nesting place for pigeons.” The ashes of our loved ones are tucked safely in dovecotes. Cemeteries everywhere are inhabited by small flocks of the dead.
I ask Bill what’s involved in creating a home for the dead and he tells me there is a great freedom to be found when the body is not confined by the conventional space of the living world: “We do not need to worry about whether it will be able to walk up a set of stairs or turn on the light in the garage.” In the midst of a cemetery laid out with flat stones, he has created a refuge. On a sunny day, when you stand in the middle of the site and look up, the second-growth firs and hemlocks circling the columbaria narrow to a point of blue sky. Throughout the site, small pools catch rainwater so that the sky is reflected at eye level. This is, quite simply, the poetry of death. A few of the niches have mirrors in them so that when you look in, you see your reflection.