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.

An end of year story

December 27, 2008


10 bowls of music that are also gardens    

There is a story in Ben Okri’s, Arcadia  that never fails to put things into perspective for me. I’ll paraphrase and quote it here.

You die and get to Heaven’s gate and are met by a mysterious person. Together you review the life you’ve lived. You complain that you had no breaks, things didn’t work out for you, that you weren’t helped, that you didn’t belong to the right circles, that people blocked your way, in short you pour out a torrent of excuses.

But for every excuse you bring forth, the infinitely patient person points to little things here and there that you could have done, little mental adjustments you could have made. He gently offers you examples of where, instead of giving up, you could have been more patient. Tenderly he shows you all the little things you could have done, within the range of your ability and will, that would have made a difference.  And they make sense, you see how by being more alive to your life ,and not afraid, things could have been so much more livable, indeed quite wonderful.

You suddenly see that you could have been perfectly happy during all the time that you were perfectly miserable. That you could have been free instead of being a prisoner. That you could have been one of the radiant ones of the earth. That living could have been fun. It could have been worthwhile.  That life could have been a playground of possibilities. And living could have been composed of experiments in surprise, in immortality. Experiments in the art of astonishment. Fascinating time-games. Space-games. Dimension-games.

You suddenly see that living is the place where gods play within mortal flesh. An open-ended play in which dying is the most open-ended ending of them all, opening out into the infinity of nothingness, or into the infinity of absolute being.  

Living is where amazing things can be done in consciousness and in history. Living ought to be the unfolding masterpiece of the loving spirit. And dying ought to set this masterpiece free to enrich the world. A good life is the masterwork of the magic intelligence that dwells within us.
Faced with the enormity of this thought doom, failure, despair and unhappiness seemed a small thing, a gross missing of the point of it all.

Emily Young’s angels

December 7, 2008


Angel by Emily Young

London was in the middle of a heat wave.  The familiar streets of Kensington where I’d spent childhood vacations were strangely Mediterranean in feel, Holland Park was tropical.
It would have been a beautiful time except my mother was dying in a hospice in St. John’s Wood.

I was staying with my aunt and uncle and would travel by tube every day from the High Street to St. John and Elizabeth’s to visit mom. She felt she was there for respite care and would soon be returning to her flat and beloved piano. During my visits, we would chat and read together and reminisce a bit. The room was warm but cozy and light. I’d leave in the early evening and return the next afternoon.

In the mornings while she was receiving care, I would be free to wander my old haunts in the neighborhood. One day when I looked down from my aunt and uncle’s fifth floor flat, I saw that there was a sculpture garden in the back of Leighton house.  That morning, I met for the first time, Emily Young’s angels. And I recognized them from deep in my soul.

For me, angels have never been those sappy fat little girls and and naked baby boys. They were always vast, fiery and dangerous in their huge intensity. My angels don’t fit on a head of a pin, they spread over galaxies. And dance.

Walking among Emily’s giant winged angel heads I felt that deep kinship and returning to oneself that great art always catalyzes.  The gardens were deserted, sheltered, holy with presence. I felt enfolded and comforted and strengthened for the impossible task of letting my beloved mother go. No, letting her go was easy compared to seeing her in the hospice and knowing she would never come home again.

Every day during my mother’s last week on earth, I visited those angels and rested in  their large presence. Looking closely at the Purbeck marble used for some of the heads, I found endless little worlds of fossilized creatures, like filigree on those great winged heads.

I don’t remember now, which came first, the call that my mother had died, or looking down from my aunt’s apartment to see bare grass dotted with yellow postage stamp squares where the angel garden had once been.  But these two losses will be forever linked in my memory. As well as gratitude for being carried on those stone wings during that  hot summer in London.