Lonely Funerals: Compassionate Verses

Fran Hall No Comments
Fran Hall

It’s been a while since we posted on the GFG Blog, but this weekend, we heard about a project in Scotland that is too important not to share with our readers.

Michael Hannah is an independent funeral celebrant based in Dundee. He has generously written this guest post for us.

For many of us, the idea of a good funeral evokes images of a packed crematorium or a crowded graveside. Of course the readers of this blog are likely to have considered more deeply than most, exactly what constitutes a “good funeral”. But our ideas will usually involve people – friends and family gathering together to mourn, honour and celebrate a life. 

Sadly, this ideal is not always realized; some of us will die alone, and for a small minority, no-one turns up for that final send-off. As a celebrant, I quickly came to recognize the sharp poignancy of the sparsely attended ceremony, the “nearly lonely” funeral.

Then, as a student on Glasgow University’s End of Life studies MSc, I read about a Lonely Funeral project in the Netherlands. This began in 2001, when the poet Bart Droog started to attend these sad events to which no-one else came. He honoured them with poems inspired by whatever biographical details existed. Poetry is well suited to creating stories out of fragments – a photograph, a passport, a police report. 

The idea spread and now operates in several Dutch and Belgian cities. An anthology of the poems and back stories has been published. These stories offer insights into how people arrive at such a lonely end to their life – social isolation through ageing, mental health issues, homelessness, marginalization.

Such issues are hardly unique to the Netherlands, so I wondered if similar initiatives existed in Scotland and the UK. It seemed not, though everyone I spoke to about the project told me what a beautiful and moving idea it was.

And then I met a local poet, Andy Jackson, who already knew about the project, having heard one of the Dutch founders speak at a festival in St Andrews. Together we decided to invest a little more energy and organization into the idea, and in November last year, held an event as part of the To Absent Friends storytelling festival. That provoked a lot of media interest – locally and nationally – and created a sense of momentum.

Projects like this take their time to develop though – there are sensitivities to be negotiated, and trust to be built with potential local gatekeepers and champions. But early in May we conducted what we think is the first Lonely Funeral to be held in Scotland. A quiet, sad but dignified moment in a cemetery on the outskirts of Dundee. The gleaming black hearse pulled up at the grave, the funeral directors and cemetery staff lowered the coffin, Andy read the poem he’d written in just two days from the little that was known, I stood a little way back with the case worker from social services. Afterwards, we chatted for a little while and then all drifted off. Back at his desk, Andy posted a report for Lapidus Scotland, the organization that has been supporting this project.

In time, the grass will grow back and the grave will lie unmarked. A few days after the funeral, as we chatted about how it had gone, Andy remarked on the sadness of that lonely patch of grass but said that at least the poem would serve as a headstone. Yes, Andy, and what a headstone!

Reference

Inghels, M. & Starik, F., 2018. The Lonely Funeral: Poets at the gravesides of the forgotten. Todmorden: Arc Publications. [English translation]

The Poem

For Derek

I step into the boxroom of your life,
tiptoe round the shrouded furniture,
shapeless islands on the exposed floor.

Who lived in this room, and what kind of light
fell through its window before the fixtures
and fittings of time could bear no more?

I cannot know, and yet am drawn to the walls,
sandwiched with paper and emulsion,
layer on layer, overlain with eggshell years.

I tug at a peeling edge and pull, and a small
corner tears away in my hand. I imagine
you with your brush and bright paint, here

in the midst of what you were, applying
primer, undercoat, topcoat, glossing
and touching up, each coat a moment

preserved: maybe damage you were trying
to make good, or faith in the face of closing
doors, working the quiet job with devotion.

Here are the patterns of a family, of love
built up but somehow broken. Below
is the lining paper of a childhood, too dark

to be a colour. Below that, I cannot look,
and so I will put away my pen and go
from this room, empty now as a stilled heart.

Let these words know a painter’s touch,
and their simple strokes be just enough
to show the world the keenness of your brush.

Andy Jackson, May 2023

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