Funeral as a sacred space

January 12, 2009

Our next door neighbor died suddenly on Tuesday night. I didn’t know Frans well, he only used the house as a recreation and hobby space. But in the 6 years that he came there, sometimes daily, we came to know him as a gentle and  kind man.  I am sad that he was cut down at 69 in good health with lots of plans on his new 2009 agenda.  And his family and friends are  bitterly bereaved.

I was at his funeral all afternoon and am gradually reentering the world. It was such a sacred space.  I loved the unfolding of the ritual. First, entering the tiny church in the middle of a winter country landscape, with only a few farms dotted around, hardly any trees. Hearing the reflections on his life from his family and friends, hearing the occasional sniffles, being soothed by the sunlight on the whitewashed walls. No mobile phones, no mundane thoughts, just this, the death of a good man. All of our approaching deaths.

The stories continued for an hour or more, the wind came up, the sun clouded over. The family lifted the beautiful wooden coffin made by friends, and a hundred of us stood as his body was carried outside. There was a 20 minute drive to the cemetery and a cruelly cold, wet and windy wait by the grave.  This part was done in silence, and family and friends passed by the open grave and threw a scoop  of the heavy clay onto his coffin. It was a desolate clunking sound, raw and earthed and definite; we would leave our friend behind, alone in the cold ground.

Then the drive back to the church, a cup of coffee waiting. Warmth, shelter, friends. Fewer signs of open grieving. Slowly people started talking in little groups. There was soup and sandwiches, and gradually life started to reestablish itself as the circle closed. After about 20 minutes it could have been any social gathering, with albeit subdued, chatter and some laughter.

The ritual: grieving, saying goodbye together, the burial, the coming together for food and drink and comfort.  How beautiful it was, how comforting, how entirely right.

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