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In Holland, the city provides poets to give eulogies at funerals where no family is present. I recently attended one of these ceremonies.
The tiny white coffin is light enough to be carried by a slim young woman in a blue suit. She picks it up from inside the silver hearse, where it looks slightly out of place: too small for the enormous car. Bells are tolling in the steeple of the funeral church, but it is early yet. Another half hour to go, people are still arriving. Some carry flowers, some a sprig of rosemary for remembrance. Where most funerals are also a reunion of sorts, this one is not. People stand alone; some may force conversation with their neighbour, but it is clear that nobody knows each other. The only purposeful contact is between the policemen and women who are here. Twenty, maybe more. Some in uniform, some not, some even with all their decorations shiny on their breast. There is a bit of watery sunshine coming through the trees, but most of us are carrying an umbrella, just in case. An elderly man looks around to the more than one hundred people who have now assembled and says that he hopes to see as many at his own funeral. It sounds envious and out of place. His wife makes sure he knows that: “you’ve had life, Kees, this little one didn’t”. He sighs.
This is St Barbara cemetery in Amsterdam, and this is not a normal funeral. The little baby boy we are carrying to his grave today has no name and no weeping family to see him off. He was found almost three months ago, in a plastic bag on the edge of one of Amsterdam’s lakes. Not a mark on him, but dead. Probably born alive, although even the pathologist couldn’t be sure. She is here today as well, as a sort-of surrogate mother, just like the detectives who dealt with the case, some people from Amsterdam Council and Frank Starik, the coordinator of “The Lonely Funeral”. Starik is a poet. For years he was Amsterdam’s City Poet, responsible for writing poetry about the city and its goings-on. In 2002 he also founded “The Lonely Funeral”, an organisation that supplies poets to funerals of people who die alone and have nobody to attend their farewell. In The Netherlands, these burials are the responsibility of Social Services, who take the place of family or friends. They pick a coffin, the music, some flowers. But until Starik came along, there was nobody to say goodbye. Not really, not in words, and especially not in words chosen for this particular person. Starik decided that all of us deserve some respect, even in death, and that is why he is speaking today, at Lonely Funeral number 207 – the little boy from the lake.
It doesn’t happen often that there are so many people present at a funeral like this, but dead babies thankfully still cause a stir and Amsterdam has been gripped by the story for months now. That is why City Council decided to make this a public funeral, which means that Starik has a far greater audience than usual. Most of the time there is the funeral director and the cemetery owner, that is it. The dead are almost always adults: drunks, junkies, illegal immigrants, old people, vagrants, loners. Some die in their homes, unnoticed until neighbours call the police because of the smell. Some are found in Amsterdam’s canals or frozen to death in a deserted alley-way. Around 15 times a year there is a funeral like this. Sometimes there is a name on the coffin, sometimes not. Like when one of the shipping companies found an illegal immigrant in one of their holds. He hadn’t realised that the holds carry no oxygen, so he had choked. No papers, nothing. The poet-of-the-day talked about dreams instead, about the courage to take risks, even when they turn out deadly. It was a nice memorial service.
Starik wants as much respect for the dead person as possible and for that, you need to spend time to think about not only life, but this particular one. The poets are there on behalf of the community, because even if you deserved to die alone, even if you chose to die alone, you were part of a social network once.
Although Frank Starik is the coordinator of “The Lonely Funeral” and delivers quite a few of the eulogies, he is not the only one. The organisation has an estimated 30 poets on its books and it seems like every year another city decides to join its ranks. There are eight towns in Holland now providing poets at these kinds of funerals. Antwerp in Belgium is part of the foundation as well, and London and Melbourne are in the process of setting up. Money comes from City Councils, some cemeteries, writers’ organisations and private people. The poets are paid, which is necessary, Starik thinks, to get the best quality and some proper, individual attention. He wants as much respect for the dead person as possible and for that, you need to spend time to think about not only life, but this particular one. And time is money, even in poetry. The poets are there on behalf of the community, is Starik’s mantra, because even if you deserved to die alone, even if you chose to die alone, you were part of a social network once.
Today, though, we are burying somebody who never had a chance to be part of anything. Nevertheless, we are all here: old people close to their own graves, fathers and mothers with babies of their own, new grandparents like myself, because funerals are also (often mostly) about ourselves. Our own fears, our own loneliness, our own need for community. As soon as people walk inside the funeral home and see candles burning either side of the tiny white coffin, the crying starts. Amsterdammers are notoriously sentimental, but even I have to swallow my emotions. Starik, who opens procedures, puts his finger on one of the many problematic issues here: a baby is not supposed to be nameless or have what he calls in Dutch an “onbestaan”, a non-existence. He talks about a futile, wasted soul, and the elderly woman beside me starts to weep uncontrollably. Later she will tell me about the child she had to give up when she was 16 and pregnant after rape; how she still longs for that baby, a man of sixty-six now, “and two months and fifteen days”, she adds.
Then the female detective comes forward to speak. She talks about the plastic bag in the grass and how for a moment she had hoped that it would be a doll. There had been lots of tears, she says, and thoughts about the mother. “I took care of your boy to the best of my ability”, she declares and turns around to put a big bunch of flowers on the coffin, almost hiding it from view. There is anger too: in a speech by one of the people of the neighbourhood where the baby was found. “I don’t care what your problems were”, she berates the parents sternly, “life is sacred and you take your responsibilities!”.
Afterwards, we walk to the burial site, where a tiny grave is dug in what is called Angels Corner. After a few more words, the coffin is lowered into the ground and people start filing past, throwing stuffed animals, flowers and handfuls of sand on top of the casket.
Over sandwiches and coffee (in Dutch one of the descriptors of coffee is a “cup of comfort”), Starik looks contented. Another person guided into eternity in a respectful way.
A job well done, some comfort earned.