RITUALS OF FAREWELL

Jessica Millet


The last time Sergio saw her, she was wearing the green robe that he had bought her 28 years earlier, on their honeymoon. They said goodbye with the promise of returning to the Paris Cafe on Saturday. A knock on the door interrupts Sergio’s memories (thoughts?), he rushes to open the door to avoid suspicion. A young man appears in the humid corridor and apologizes. He explains that there are no funeral hearses available, but asks if a truck will do. One more thing to add to the list of absences, Sergio thought, no family members, no eulogies and now no funeral hearse. The wind moved the white curtain, bringing with it the smell of lilies and roses from atop the coffin. The coffin itself was sealed to keep inside the virus that had taken Julia. At the other end of the room, the voice of the health minister announced the new restrictions for May. María sat in front of the television, staring at her mother’s rosary. In life, she had used that rosary to elevate her prayers to the heavens.


The pandemic transcended our civilization. Funeral rites date back 50,000 years as a sign of our acceptance of death. Freud spoke about our inability to accept our own deaths, as our understanding of mortality came from the demise of others. Fundamentally, funeral rites serve to say farewell to our time with others, and therefore serve as a stance against the silence that disrupts our lives. Funeral rites allow us to get together with friends, family, and strangers, and commemorate the love and absence of those who leave us behind. While we share this experience, the pain that each one of us feel in our body and soul is unique.


So we hug each other in silence, we glance at each other and stand close to one another for warmth. In Jewish tradition we sit “shiva” for a week, praying twice a day, receiving friends and strangers to speak about the departed. Or failing that, we speak about politics or soccer to keep each other company. Others take nine days instead, eating cookies and sipping coffee. There are those of us who make our own customs, such as placing flowers and a photo on a small boat. In any case, these rites serve for a group of people to accept the pain of our lost loved ones. These rituals allow us to exorcize the silence of death. Even if death sneaks in through the smell of lilies and roses.


This pandemic has forced us to rethink the way we say goodbye. It has pushed us to find new ways to mourn, such as a walk outdoors to spread ashes, a burial in the forest, or a subtle wake in the neighborhood. Even if our options are few, being able to mourn with others allows us to, as my dear friend María José said, “make silence into words”.


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