Monday, 24 September 2012

The Last Funeral

The cremation service was sad in an upbeat way. My culture, the Afrikaner culture, has a way of joking through tragedy. My first instinct after hearing how my mother had died, was to think: Trust you to party to the very end. Mum and her friend had just arrived home after a bit of pensioner's gambling and a Steve Hofmeyr concert when she died of a heart attack, still sitting in the car. A friend of mine, in true Afrikaner spirit, suggested we send Mr. Hofmeyr notice that his concert literally bored my mother to death.

My second instinct was to compile a list of the funny anecdotes she used to tell. I remember hearing them again and again as I was growing up. Same set up, same body, same punchline. I hung on every word no matter how old I was, how many times I've heard it. It was a window into life-before-me.

The service was a combination of the old style of funeral and some new practices I have not encountered before. I felt like a visitor to my own culture and childhood church. This is a result of living outside South Africa and forsaking organized religion. I was looking around me as both an ingrained participant in this ritual and tourist. It was odd.

Traditionally, funerals would be handled in a sombre way. Heavy, stately affairs, it somehow equated to showing respect to the dead.  The dress was Sunday Best, suits and ties for men and no hats inside the church. Women were sentenced to modest dresses only - no open backs, shoulders, low necklines or high hemlines; and definitely no trousers for the women. At my mother's service, everyone was dressed in smart casual with some people actually wearing jeans. Everyone was dressed nicely but not stuffily.

Traditionally, you'd walk in with sad organ music. A heavy sermon of doom and hope will follow. There would be intermittent singing from hymnals where only the chorus part is decipherable. And prayers during which the men would stand and the women would remain seated. (It had always felt to me that there were too many prayers.)  A family member would get up and give thanks to caretakers, undertakers, clergy, those who came from afar... Maybe someone would speak about their loved one, trying to paint a picture of who they were. 

At my mother's service, the reverend did the thank you notes composed by me at the beginning of the service. And then, he suddenly digressed and comically explained how professional the funeral home people were dressed compared to him. In all fairness it was midnight when he was called out. He noted he arrived at the scene sloppily dressed and can't even remember if he wore shoes or slippers, while they were dressed in suits and ties. My sister-in-law leans over and whispers to me: "He wore shoes."

He introduced me to tell my list of anecdotes, my way to try and say: This is who we lost. This is who we're going to miss. But as I approach the front, I cannot resist to quip: "According to Marilise you wore shoes, Reverend." People giggle in that guiltily-relieved way, no need for fake somberness today! I feel safe and happy in my sadness and I tell my mother's stories. I invite people to tell me stories about my mother when we will have refreshments afterwards.  

Then Peter is introduced to sing Amazing Grace.  This was such a gift. A wish of my mother's came true. She would cry every time she heard that song. I once asked her why, thinking I'd get a story about how someone she loved died. I thought it would be about a soldier she had known. Maybe it reminded her of her father (who had died that year). But all I got was: "It's just beautiful."

The reverend takes over, gives a short and sweet sermon, doesn't pray excessively, but we do croon out those hymns.

At this point, traditionally, the pallbearers would take the coffin out to the hearse. The procession goes to the cemetery. The person is interred with some more sermon and prayer. Everyone sprinkles flower petals on the coffin. Their sweet smell always pleasant. And the family members each shovel some dirt on too. This is where I would feel the sadness overcome me time and time again. There at the open grave. 

Another life long wish of mum's was to be cremated ("...because I'd die if I wake up and realize I was buried alive." she used to joke), there was no trip to the cemetery. There would never be a trip there for her.  There were no pallbearers. Everyone congregated outside and listened to the "graveside sermon" looking onto my mother's coffin situated in the hearse (What is that sermon called? I'm sure it has a name). She would be cremated later on. My cousin's husband, who works at the crematorium, said he'd take care of her personally. I am so grateful at the knowledge that she was handled by someone who knew and loved her. 

The last part of mom's service was exactly the way these things have always been: Refreshments served in the church hall, prepared by the sisters of the congregation. It consists of all the traditional pastries, tarts, cakes and little crust-less triangle sandwiches. The same food you'd find at birthdays, weddings, graduations and so on (bar the sandwiches, they are funeral specific).  

And it was here, that Peter, the amazing Amazing Grace singer reminded me of the funny story of how my mother gave me my name. A cousin comes over and retells my mum's favourite story of his 3 year old self cursing after he had fallen of his tricycle. The laughter is great. The reminder of these stories I had forgotten in my frenzy to find them during my grief was greater.

That was the last funeral I attended in South Africa. That was 4 and a half years ago. Just last week, I attended my first service in America. A military funeral that was exactly the way it is portrayed in film and on television. The whole time I was there I kept thinking: Wow, this really happens, they are really that full of ceremony and grace. And I cried when they played Taps on the bugle, even though I did not know my husband's uncle. It was not Amazing Grace, but I suddenly knew why it made my mother cry. Some music just caries the sadness of being human through the air, to your ears and right into your soul.

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