Paris Letters #75
A funeral in Poland
So I’m in Poland staying in one of those 1980’s concrete Soviets blocks: the apartment of the deceased. It is hard to sleep here amidst the heaviness in the air, the sky is low and menacing — it’s as if there were a veil of fog over the world, a heavy shround seems cover of the landscape. We are dressed in black for a funeral, but it feels like the very soul is composed of mourning in this little town.
People here endure — as in the french ‘en’ ‘dure’ or ‘hardened’. The collective mind is in a limbo, in the space between words. The soviet promise never manifested, the capitalist promise has emptied out the countryside; nevertheless there is a natural beauty in this neglected old world: a castle with germanic spires, a forest, a lake, and river. All promises will now be taken with a bit of salt and vodka: no one will ever believe in them again. As she leans over and whispers: you need to be careful there, there are things that happened. Violence and violation — endured. She is not sleeping: she is battling with ghosts.
In the morning it occurs to me that the birds sing very loudly here: they are singing to remind us, that beneath the fog of the world, is still the strong desire to be. That from hardened places, comes soft voices and dreams.
We enter the little chapel to see the body. The face of the fallen seems still twisted in pain, as if she as she died in the act of some obsure revenge. Her eyes are not fully closed — a botched job by the undertaker — they are grey green and looking at us from the beyond. Strangely, I keep expecting the corpse’s breast to rise, for the life to come back to her — there is something in us that cannot really believe in death. I touch the cold hand to acknowledge a life I knew only by proxy, and tears well up. A body that once laughed and made love, and helped people and hurt people. Some will forget her others will carry her blessings and curses. As everybody makes prayers, each will be remembering a different person — for she will have been a different person to each.
I feel here the power of the church — the power of the ceremony, but also the power to bind people. Shouldn’t a funeral be both serious and gay ?— but there is little gaiety here on this cold April day. The ceremony is still devastatingly beautiful, the trumpet blows though the fog and the banners of christs procession. But there is too much distance between the church and the people I feel — the pulpit is much too high. It’s as if the body is give over to the church, and also the power of people to celebrate a life and mourn its passing. I feel angery at this institution for managing people’s suffering and joy in this way, for being so distant. I look at the young priest and seems taken aback: perhaps he can sense my hostility. My wife does not partake of communion, and I am proud of her. I think of James Joyce when he said: I will not serve.
As the corpse is lowered down into the earth, tears well up again for the care that is taken of the body, in the absolute sanctity of the moment. And at the same time I cannot help but think: What if we treated living bodies, with the same reverence we treat the dead? And haven’t the followers of christ, worshipped a corpse for too long — and forgotten all about the ressurection.