A few weeks ago I had the unusual circumstance of attending two events to mark the passing of people in my life, in the same weekend. One was for a family member, and one for a close friend. I have wanted to reflect on how we express ourselves and each other in funeral practices. The events were very different, and having them so close upon each other made the contrast seem quite noticeable. Both expressed the love and loss in touching ways. Below is a short pastiche of images and moments, which I hope will paint a picture.
Friday afternoon. Siblings, cousins, uncles, aunties gather at the funeral home. Dimmed lighting, cool limestone walls and dark, plush carpeting. A ceremonious viewing for the matriarch of an Italian Catholic family. A dark flowing gown, tight hair perm and best make up. A petunia, “her favourite” is produced and gently pinned on her left breast. “She would wear it like this”. Later that evening, we gather at the church. High wooden ceilings, flowing water and ornate candelabra. An evening Rosary service. Last time I was here was for the Baptism of a nephew. Friends and people from the community are here to pay respect. The room is filled with quiet respect. I feel out of place joining the procession of family members down the central aisle to our places at the front. The coffin is already here, closed now. The priest leads the recital.
Saturday morning at the church, eulogy and tributes. Hymns and scripted words are led by clergy and grandchildren. Make-up stained with tears in the hot morning, as time-stained early century photographs mix with iPhone selfies from the nursing home, playing one by one to her favourite music. The woman’s children line up to hug the quiet procession of people in black, who file out into the sunlight and mingle in the carpark. The convoy of limousines moves out into the traffic and drives across town to the burial. An hour later we are walking down the cemetery avenues, curling with the roads as we follow the limousine. The burial site is prepared and mounds of dirt are covered in green astro-turf. She is being buried next to her husband, in a family plot purchased years ago. Rows of ornate headstones and polished marble extend across the grass fields. An Ed Sheeran song plays across a mobile loudspeaker. Rose petals follow the coffin as it slowly lowers into the turf. Later, an older aunty tells the cousins to keep the younger children quiet while the mourners hug and handshake family members once more. “That’s respect for her”.
Saturday afternoon, family and friends gather at the soccer club. Ties are discarded, food on platters and kids run amongst the circles of family members. Introductions to new partners and old family connections start with “how did you know Nonna?” Stories weave in and out of the banter and family catch up. I have only a few, but feel less displaced here. As the sunlight starts to wane we start to say farewells and descend the stairs into the afternoon heat.
Sunday near dusk after another hot day. People slowly start to collect into small groups in a gardened alcove in suburban Perth. It’s a space that is sometimes used by young couples for wedding shots, but mostly a retreat from the busy life on a university campus. Tonight there are cut-off jeans, headbands and more than a couple of viking helmets. I don’t know that joke. My friend’s treasured sound system and huge tv screen is assembled in the garden area, beaming out prog rock, travel photos, colourful pictures of Sri Lankan street-food and drunken snaps from themed parties. A big-band is assembling in one corner, trombones and trumpets tune up. His best mate briefly takes the microphone and announces that there won’t be any speeches. People laugh and heckle – “Speech, speech!”. “No its as he wanted. Enjoy the food. Drink the beer. He wanted us all to party and just connect.” The band fire up into a breakneck riff that bookends a tumultuous first jazz number. Piles of vegetarian Indian food are served from vats as the lines of well-wishers mingle, meet and chat. A brief flurry of dancing, but then its over by 9:30 and tables, speakers and microphones are packed into piles near the service vehicle access point. An almost full moon peeks through the peppermint trees, and some are left, in whimsical or searching conversations. “Is this it?”
Monday mid-morning and a smaller group assemble in dusty parkland near a river. My friend’s beloved dog is here, sniffing familiar folk who have been the social network for a free-spirited man progressively limited to neighbourhood, then home, then bed. After about thirty minutes of mingling around, a short announcement. A friend shares a story about his love of cooking and great food and invites us to take a single frangipani, a pinch of coriander seeds and some peppercorns to spread among the ashes. His brother and mother take a plain looking tin and stand knee deep in the dark green water, pouring the ash around them. The wind whips it up into their clothes. She fights back tears and keeps going, supported by her son, who uses a branch to separate the piles of ash, then lets it sit on the surface of the water. Slowly, lines of friends come down to the water’s edge. Digging into the sand to mix earth and water with the flowers and spices. Mouthing quiet words as the pieces mingle together in the water. Hugs and conversation and then the slow, dusty walk back to the cars and (for many) a mid-morning arrival to the workplace.