There could be a beautiful, integrant and almost happy sorrow about a life gone, if we didn’t have to become so active. There are so many things to take care of and so many things to be thought of. People are never busier than when they’d do nothing rather than staring ahead. Especially surrounding death and funerals there is a frantic urge to organise and moreover a strangling etiquette. Hundreds of regulations determine every step we take and the more fearful we are, the more we get trapped in the fyke of funerary commerce. For every degree of ‘piety’ there are adjusted rates.
Then there are the expressions of sympathies that consist mostly of speaking in cliches. ‘How old was he?’ ‘Eighty five.’ ‘Well, then you can’t complain. I’d sign up for that.’ ‘Yes, yes, you can say that.’ ‘But it’s not in our hands.’ And then they tell you to ‘stay strong’, which you really only need to stay nice amidst all those well wishes.
There are endless considerations about what has to be, should be, is done frequently, would be greatly appreciated etc. What I would love to do most is to take father with me and bury him in the orchard. There is a beautiful, melancholy spot there that i’ve long considered as a graveyard. The hedge makes a turn there and the grass seems tender. The ground underneath it would have mercy on him.
In the evening there was a stations of the cross and a rosary in the chapel of the old age home. Visiting this ceremony is a part of the innumerable obligations. My hands were sweaty when it was done. Fortunately one of the little ones yelled ‘it stinks’ out loud when one of the attendees wasn’t able to suppress a fart. I think father would have laughed too, for in the field of farts he had a finely tuned sense of humour, almost as imperative as his piety. When we used to sit behind him on the bicycle, he’d sometimes fart loudly and yell ‘catch ‘m’.
The stations of the cross were just like when I was young, an incomprehensible mixture of mysticism, sadism and moralising. In between there were as good and as bad as they could songs of an old Dutch version of the Stabat Mater, sung with sheer, senile voices. It didn’t surprise me at all that none of us participated and I felt most connected to the kids that took every opportunity to giggle or to imprint comical details so they could repeat them at home.
Father is now in an open bier. I scare more from the fringes and tassels that decorate the coffin than from his hollowed face and his blue nails. I never understood what this fuss was all about. Apparently it is a commercial expression of great affection or something. Now that nothing can be achieved anymore, you suddenly have to spare ‘no expense’, even at the cost of your own taste, for someone who is no longer there and thought it all nonsense when he was there.
The residents of the old age home condole us, beautifully, without small talk and sincere. Only old fold should really be allowed to use cliches. Some of them have tears in their eyes. Someone said: ‘We lose a lot with him.’ I belief his housemates were very fond of him, even though he was a bit withdrawn. He’s had a few happy years here.
I don’t think he would have had as much freedom and rest in the houses of any of us. We were never very good at hiding the smaller and larger annoyances he caused: his proverbs and sayings, the drumming of his fingers on the armrest of his chair, his coughing fits, the matt, submissive tone of his rosary and the way he ate or really not that, but the introverted smile with which he held each bite in front of his mouth for a moment and looked at it or really not that either, but the total absorption with which he stared ahead or really not that either etcetera. Those are the things that we now, when we are amongst each other, are starting to talk about, not without regret and shame, but still with the certainty that we never could have done it differently, that it didn’t change a thing in the situation and that the next generation will have the same tricks. It’s like a competition in which we surpass each other in making risible confessions and reminiscing painful moments.
When I’m looking at him, as he lies there endlessly absent in his coffin, i’m having difficulty imagining that this is meant to be taken seriously. We’ve known him for so long as a presence that a definitive farewell is unthinkable. That’s why I have this crazy thought that he’s sleeping and not really dead. Fathers remain alive forever; they are immortal because they are inevitable and determine our whole life. Only others die; they die because we don’t care about them.
Sometimes I feel the ridiculous urge, like I used to do sometimes in a lonely spot, to try out all my magical abilities, my dormant forces, with a resolutely spoken command. Then suddenly the great wonder would occur. Jesus could do that so beautifully and he managed to pull it off every time too. I would like to take his dead hand: ‘Jan Verhoeven, I tell you; rise’ and then bring him back to the surprised family. It is my old priesthood dream. Perhaps the rector had something similar in mind when he wanted ‘to speak with him alone’. But he couldn’t even make a living person talk. Such is all of life full of a shameful primitivity that we can’t always hide. We make them into solemn rituals, so they seem official and acknowledged.
The condolences and the funeral, which we had dreaded quite a bit, went by without difficulties. Someone said by accident or out of ignorance ‘congratulations’ and we were very curious if he’d persevere in that eleven times. He did so indeed and we all managed to keep looking serious. The church was full, the service was well taken care of and not as lugubrious as it used to be. The pastor that sang the preface, although in Dutch, is a former classmate. Tea afterwards, where we had about a hundred family members and acquaintances, was even very convivial. The sun was shining as cheerfully as on the Sunday morning he died. The kids ran to and fro from the cafe to the grave to check if it had filled up completely yet. We had a few drinks and agreed to see each other more often. But probably that won’t happen until another member of the family is buried.