This coming Wednesday at 8:30 in the morning, I am to go to the municipal cemetery to unbury my father. I was instructed by Ms “Rita,” in splendid Brillo copper hair all the rage this summer in Athens, to bring:
- a bottle of wine, white, red or rose doesn’t matter
- an affidavit from my mother giving me permission to conduct the ceremony
- 22 Euros fee for the excavation
- 35 Euros for the rental of the bone safety deposit box
- a bone depository form the flower shop across the street
- my Greek ID card, original with photocopy
- a tip for the priest who is supposed to read a memorial service
I am supposed to get paperwork to arrange with the village priest on his home island in the Cyclades for clearance to relocate the remains there. I have to wait till the following Friday for the priest that certifies these things that the bones are clean and disease-free to allow for transport. I am supposed to wait by the grave as the grave digger, Mr. Dimitri, unburies his body, which by now after four years, has completely decomposed. I am supposed to wait until the hand me his bones, disinfected by pouring wine over them. I am supposed to carry his bones, cranium, legs, rib cage, the whole skeleton, in a longish looking red-velvet lined box on the ferry for 8 hours to another small cemetery on the other side of the island and rebury them there. (No doubt paying another fee and another priest in tips).
How does one do this sort of thing?
The grave digger, Mr. Dimitri, comes to the counter of the office at the Municipal Cemetery to tell me that the body is ready matter-of-factly, like he were telling me that the cake in the oven is done. He has just disinterred the body to check if there is any more meat left on the bones.
Only in a place as raw and elemental as Greece does this sort of thing happen. Life stares at death in the face; walks holding hands with it side-by-side; no shields, no fancy packaging, no disclaimers. You will look headlong into the grave of your forefather and witness the slow composition of his flesh. Dust to dust, one circle, one coin.
I get freaked out about death, but this practice of “staring down the bones,” has taught me something. It has taught me that the awesome mystery that death is can be just as mundane as life. No big whoop. Poor Yorick, Poor Baba, but it’s all the same. C’est la vie.
I remember many years ago when I was waiting at the bedside of my baftistikia (a Guyanese woman I had baptized into Orthodoxy) as she was giving birth to her first child. I was traumatized by the whole ordeal; it’s a lot more raw and elemental when you are facing the famous portal that brings the unborn into the living. When I asked the nurse in charge how this particular birth compared to the others she had witnessed. “It was routine,” she replied. “All births follow the same process.” She was not phased at all by this indescribable mystery that birth is. Although it seems like your baby’s birth or your father’s death is earth-shattering and monumental, it isn’t. It’s routine. Every death and every birth is the flip side of the same coin. Just like the painting by Klimt. The eerie figure of death, a skull yielding a heavy club, draped in a quilt bearing headstones and crosses in a dark graveyard, watches across the divide at the vibrant tangled mass of rosy human flesh tightly embraced: plump motherly breasts, rounded rosy baby cheeks and bottoms, protective muscular male bodies in parenthesis.
“We must not demean life by standing in awe of death” David Sarnoff, the father of radio broadcasting, said.
Staring down the bones levels death to an every day event, which it is. No big deal. No big whoop. So you die, go into the ground and come up skull and bones. That’s it. No mystery. It’s routine. What matters is what you do with the rest of your days. “So teach us to number our days so that we might gain a heart of wisdom” says the Psalm.
Staring down the bones makes you whittle down the extra unnecessary unimportia of life. Get to what is essential and elemental—What is it exactly that you MUST do before you die? Whatever it is, you MUST do it.
The time you are called to join the dark underworld of shadows is not for you to know. Clotho snips her scissor and SNAP, you are done.
Walking through the cemetery I came upon a mother sobbing at the new and neat recently dug grave of her son, a young man of 28. “There is no greater pain than this,” I thought, “ a mother crying over her dead son. Next to his grave was another young man’s, aged 25. The dedication left to him by his sister made me, a complete stranger, cry. It said:
“Everything begins with the WHY?
Many unanswered questions, many many unanswered questions, but even if they were answered, it wouldn’t bring you back. I had asked of God of the years I had left, that He would give you half. So that we could live those years together. He did not accept. If only it were me and not you. You are and will be the stronger one. I am not crying! Only I thank you that you granted us 25 years of happiness. Our lives are full. Life always owes something to those it ripped off, to those it hurt, to those it wounded. Life does not forget, she too is a mother. Give me strength to hold onto the only person left in my life.
Your sister Vassia”
So it is a blessing to walk among the graves in the clear sunshine of an August summer. I am at peace here. My father’s bones might lie at my feet, but somehow I know his spirit is at rest. His presence no longer lingers in the apartment he bequeathed to me. His spirit is a long ways gone. I fold his old t-shirts and Hanes underwear in a neat pile in the closet. It is part of my daily routine, cleaning up around the house.
“Traveling mercies,” the old folk in the church where Annie Lamott congregates say to people who go off for a while. “Traveling mercies; love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 106)