Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Song for When I'm Gone: Pink Champagne, Funerals and the Fresh Horses Brigade

I opened up my laptop, eagerly searching for Eden from Edenland's latest blog post, which would divulge the newest task for those joining in her 'Fresh Horses Brigade'. Last week we were asked to share our handwriting. This week we've been requested to.............................................


My funeral song? I didn't want to think about it. I don't want to think about dying, I just want to focus on the 'living' part of my life and make the most of it.

I'm not afraid to die but I am terrified of losing loved ones. Too distressing to consider. We've lost a few members of our close-knit family and I don't want to think about losing more.

My first experience with death came with the passing of my grandfather when I was 16. It was the first time I'd ever seen my father cry. I remember going to a viewing at the funeral parlour. Family, friends and strangers were lining up to pay their respects to my grandfather. He was laying in an open casket. I was so scared. His face looked different, not the right colour, almost waxen. Old Greek women dressed in black were supporting my grandmother on either side, propping her up. She looked so small and lost. People in the line in front of me were leaning into the casket, kissing my grandfather goodbye. My turn was next. 
I froze. I looked at his mouth and could see tiny stitches keeping his lips together. I wanted to kiss him but I couldn't. I was scared. I stepped back from the queue and returned to my seat. After a brief blessing by a Greek priest who rattled a golden bowl of smoky incense over my grandfathers body, making the form of a cloudy cross, people were invited to pay their final respects before the coffin was sealed. My father took my hand to lead us towards the exit. But I couldn't leave. I had to give my grandfather a final kiss goodbye. As terrified as I was, my heart would ache with regret if I didn't. And so, with all the courage I could muster, I strode up to the coffin  and thanked my darling Papou with a final kiss, grateful for all the love and wonderful moments we'd shared.

My next encounter with Death came many years later. I was living blissfully in Greece, engaged to the man of my dreams. Life was idyllic and we didn't have a care in the world, until Sadness came to visit. My future father-in-law suffered a sudden heart-attack. He went in for routine heart surgery and didn't make it. I remember seeing him before his surgery. We were gathered in his room, my fiance, his two sisters and I. He was apprehensive about the surgery and we all assured him, promised him, he would be okay. Only, he wasn't. I still remember his big sparkly blue eyes smiling away at us under his white bushy brows, his thick white moustache dancing as he grinned and waved. The wheels of his bed squeaked as they whisked him away down the corridor. I was blowing kisses until he was out of view, the surgery doors closing  behind him. Hours later, the doctor called in the immediate family members to make his grim announcement. My father-in-law was dead.

I was not prepared for what was to follow.
Funerals: Greek style.

We left the hospital and drove 45 mins back to my fiance's house. Women dressed in black were swanning about the house, carrying trays of liquer, offering them to the mourners who were gathering. Old men, with their heads bowed, were solemnly sitting on the balcony, puffing  at their cigarettes and swinging their worry beads. My sister-in-laws and I were met out the front of the house by an elderly aunt and ushered into one of the bedrooms. We were to change out of our clothes and dress in black immediately before greeting mourners. The living room was filling with friends and family. All the sofas and chairs were placed around the edges of the room leaving a large space in the centre. Strange, I thought, it's looks like a dancefloor. Only there'd be no dancing today. Everything was eerily quiet except for the hustle and bustle of the aunties in the kitchen churning out little cups of Greek coffee and platters of koulouria biscuits served on silver trays lined with only the best crocheted doilies.
    I was dressed in a black jacket, black skirt, black top, black stockings and black heels that had been freshly polished by an over-zealous aunt. Suddenly I heard wailing. I entered the lounge and noticed that the empty dancefloor space had been filled. With my father-in-law: his open mahogony casket set on an ornate gold stand, a giant pillar of a candle at the head of the casket, a silver plated icon of the Virgin Mary resting on his chest. Now that the body had entered the house, people were free to wail. And wail they did. My mother-in-law, seated at the head of the coffin, shrieked, smacked her head about, yelled at my father-in-law for not looking after his health, yelled at him for leaving her to live all alone. My husband-to-be was a mess. I'd never seen him break down like that. He loved his father so much. And so did I. He was a humble, kind-hearted, angel of a man who always put his family first. My face was a non-stop parade of salty tears as I clutched my fiance's hand and my heartached to see my loved ones in so much pain.The aunts took turns wailing and singing traditional Greek mourning songs. Parades of people would enter the house, kiss my father-in-laws body, kiss the icon of the Virgin then take each of the family members by the hand for condolences. The parade would go on for 24 hours. In Greek tradition, the body of the deceased is kept in their house for the first 24 hours after death. All the doors and windows of the house are to remain open so that the Soul of the deceased can enter and leave freely. It was a chilly autumn in Greece and the house was so very cold I couldn't stop trembling. 
   Funerals: Greek Style. Black, black and more black. 40 days of fasting: no meat, no dairy, no partaking in joyous festivities or celebrations, no music, no sex (!). There was a Priest's Blessing on the 3rd Day After Death, at the grave, where sweet red wine and a bowl of boiled wheat flavoured with icing sugar and cinnamon and decorated with raisins in the form of a cross are offered for the soul of the dearly departed. A 9th day blessing at the grave, a 40th day blessing, followed by a feast. There was a 2 month blessing, a 3 month blessing, a 6 month blessing, a 9 month blessing and, finally, the 1 year memorial service and feast. I'd never visited a cemetery so many times in all my life.

The hardest funeral I ever had to attend was that of my darling Daddy. I will not write of it here, but you are welcome to read a post that I've dedicated to him ("On Love and Loss: My Dad, the Butterfly").

As for my own funeral, I don't want the focus to be on Death and Grief. My experience with funerals, especially the traditional Greek ones, have left me yearning for the opposite. I don't want my loved ones to lament and wallow in sorrow. I don't want them to abstain from Joy. I hope that they remember me with Love in their Hearts and a Smile on their lips, everytime.

I see a picnic on the beach, pink champagne, lemon gelato, kids running around blowing bubbles, a celebration of Love and Life.

And my song choice?

'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'

I've always had a child-like fascination for rainbows, I always stop and stare at them in awe everytime I'm in the presence of one. They make me happy. I sing this song to my children as a lullaby. It's hopeful and calming.
This is my favourite version by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

I also love Johnny Cash singing 'You Are My Sunshine'

Though, maybe I'll be a bit cheeky and throw in Marilyn Monroe singing 'Running Wild' from the film 'Some Like It Hot' . I'd love to think of my Spirit running wild and free (and playing a ukelele).

Do you have a song you'd like to be remembered by? 


Hotly Spiced said...

What a great post. So much in it! I can't believe that story of your father-in-laws funeral - so many rules and restrictions and forced laws of grieving. And the open casket? We don't do that here in Australia. No one sees the dead body. I love the songs you have chosen but I do hope they are not played for a very long time! Johnny Cash is a favourite artist of mine and the song 'Over the Rainbow'- well who doesn't love that, and of course, Marilyn Monroe in that movie playing the ukelele was just priceless.

Deb @ Bright and Precious said...

Jess, I didn't realise you'd written a post for last week's link up! Your choice of songs don't surprise me at all. Suit you to a tee. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is perfect I think. Just perfect. xx

Eccentricess said...

An intense post, so sad, but interesting. The Greek funerals would certainly allow you to grieve very thoroughly.
You are my sunshine is such a lovely song, I sing it to my daughter often.
Lovely to meet you! :-)

Julia Kuku Couture said...

I am lucky to have only every been to two funerals one a work colleges dad and the other a childhood friends dad.

My mum has talked about the very traditional funeral she experienced as a child and with her own dad and it terrifies me but it was totally normal for her.

I like you don't want to think about such things but what a lovely song you have chosen

Kelly said...

I think Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a perfect funeral song. I hope that's where we go when life is done. Beautiful and sad post. Thanks for coming over to my blog and I'm glad I got read your story as well.

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