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October 6th - A Moldovan Funeral

posted Oct 13, 2011, 12:26 PM by Post Event

This is an excerpt from a longer description of my first day at site on August 6th. Very powerful day... the story picks up as I'm walking with my host mom (Tania) and my host bunica (grandmother - Vera) to a funeral service...

Just before passing over the bridge which arches over a tiny gulley and even tinier little stream, we turn right back up the hill. The biserica, or church, is only another 100 yards and its blue bulging steeples, adorned with their gold orthodox crucifixes rise up to form the highest point for the immediately visible valley center of the town. As we approach I start to get nervous about the fact that I’m going to a funeral for someone I don’t know, in a town I’m going to be living in for two years. I’m hoping there are throngs of people so I won’t be noticed, but as we climb the stairs and enter the open double doors of the church, I realize that there are only probably ten people in the entire sanctuary, and they are all old women.

I quelled my nervousness and just decided that I was along for the ride and that no matter what happened I would make it through to the other side. I wanted to soak in all I could, so I stood back against a wall and just watched. It was obvious they were preparing, nearly every woman who entered carried a large bag of food and home-made wine and walked straight to the front of the church, and proceeded to miraculously find a way to place all of it on the already stuffed tables. Most of the food was bread, both normal, over-sized baguettes, and the tradition braided bread. The braided bread looks like a tire, or an extremely large donut, made by braiding together long rolls of dough in the shape of a circle then baking them.

The women, and all newcomers, mostly women, bought candles from a booth in the back corner of the church. The candles cost between one and two lei each and were long (from six to ten inches) and skinny and easily bent with not much effort at all. After purchasing them, the women would then stick them, as if birthday candles, into every piece of food on the table, including putting them in the tiny shot glasses holding freshly poured white or red wine. While all of this was going on, my eyes were continually drawn to the inside of the building itself.

The church was not all that large, but there were no pews, only open floor, and it is all one room, which combined to give it a larger-than-reality feel. There is a massive, triple-layered chandelier hanging down towards the front of the room, its chain disappearing from my view up into the inside of the steeple. Every single inch of the walls and ceilings are painted with detailed murals depicting different scenes from scriptures and orthodox traditions. Multiple large, freestanding alters nestled up against the walls at different points, each containing a main picture surrounded by the intricately carved wood of the alter itself. A lot of light blues and gold paint separated each mural or painting, creating, at first glance, a massive, overly busy façade, but which, upon deeper inspection, could keep curious eyes busy finding something new for hours on end.

After about 45 minutes or an hour, the funeral procession itself arrived abruptly from its journey through the village. Three men walked in holding poles with ornate crucifixes on them, followed immediately by men carrying the open casket in a wooden frame with legs up the stairs and placing it gently in the center of the room. I’ve seen an open casket before, but the sight still struck me and at first I felt incredible guilt for having come. What right did I have to see this woman’s body when all I know is that she was a teacher?

The priest, marked prominently by his thick black robes with wide yellow accents strode in behind the casket, and was followed by at least 150 to 200 people who began queuing  for candles and then filing into the room until every possible space had been filled with standing bodies. I remained sandwiched up against one wall and therefore felt a little less conspicuous, but I needn’t have worried, I didn’t draw any stares nor make any large gaffes that I’m aware of. The priest, having disappeared for a few moments toward the front of the church, reappeared, this time wearing a stiff, bright yellow and embroidered cape slash cloak, with its collar raising up halfway behind his head. He definitely looked like a priest, with his balding head compensated for with a very smartly trimmed white beard and half-moon glasses resting on the tip of his nose. He had an air of confidence and tranquility that seemed fitting for the occasion as he prepared the incense in a small half-sphere silver dish dangling from three silver chains which came together on the same silver ring which he held as he swung the dish back and forth. The incense left a wafting trail of smoke, marking its presence with both sight and a pungent but pleasing aroma.

The service started as abruptly as the funeral procession had appeared at the church doors with the priest chanting what sounded like a prayer, or a recitation of scripture, or both. He was neither fully singing nor simply speaking, but instead connected the words with one fluid hum held in monotone. The hundred or so people crammed into the room left a walkway around the casket and the tables of food save for two men who were leaning over the woman laying peacefully in the wooden bed, her hands folded over her chest and her hair covered like all the other women standing around with a beautiful scarf. I gathered as the service went on that the older man who alternately convulsed in sobs and looked around as if he were lost at all the mournful onlookers was the husband of the teacher, and the young man dressed in a satin-looking gray suit and leaning on the wood frame on which the casket rest was her eldest son. The son’s head remained hung low on his shoulders, and he frequently left the church for what I can only surmise must have been a yearning for a slight reprieve from the reality of the situation, only to be summoned back inside to stand next to his father.

A group of women circled around a pulpit shoved into a corner behind me picked up in song whenever the priest stopped his chanting. They sang sad, almost wailing songs, yet somehow managed to sound incredibly beautiful as they read the words from a large, old looking book which lay open on the pulpit. When the women were singing, the priest would take the incense from who I gathered to be his assistant and walk around the walkway, incasing the casket and food momentarily in a haze of smoke as he passed. Four young girls, perhaps early teens stood on the other side of the casket from me and so I naturally couldn’t help but see the sadness and tears covering their faces and dripping onto each others arms as they periodically embraced. One held a large picture of the late teacher which I had seen her carrying behind the casket when the procession ended its journey into the room. I’m sure those four girls, and, upon closer inspection of most of the other faces I could see, were students whom had been deeply touched by the woman who’s crossed hands now held a long skinny candle over her chest.

Even though I knew nothing of the woman for whom all these people had gathered, I had to repeatedly push down the lump in my throat which threatened to push tears out of my eyes. In a way I felt so connected with the mourning people in that room. Both my mum and my mother-in-law are teachers. I can only imagine how many children’s lives they have touched in ways too deep and too numerous to confine to words. I can only imagine how many people, spanning all generations, would be cramming around them if they were the ones in the middle of the room. Even deeper still though, I felt connected by the pain I could see in everyone’s eyes. I had flashbacks to the funerals of three close friends of mine who died roughly a year apart from each other, all in car accidents. The pain and indescribable emotions that come with death rise far above any cultural divide. They run far deeper than any religious chasm. After death we all yearn for understanding. We all cry not only for the person no longer with us, but for ourselves. For ourselves because we don’t know what we’ll face when our time comes. We don’t know how to cope with the absence of a person so dear to us. We don’t know how to put into words what it feels like to realize that person would have really enjoyed something but that they are no longer here to experience it. We don’t know what to say to those who were ‘closer’ to the person than we were. We don’t understand fully the cycle of life nor why it seems so arbitrary who gets to live a long life and who gets taken early. Nor do we really know which is better, if either.

Though the words sung were gorgeous and the ceremony steeped in generations of meaningful traditions, it all still falls bitterly short of providing answers to these questions we grapple with. I have sat in the living rooms of my friend’s deeply Christian families after the news has come. I have sat on the mat in the sand of the Sahel with a grieving Muslim family after their eldest son died. And now I have seen the tears running down the faces of people even as they cross themselves in the Orthodox tradition. Somehow all the rehearsed and ‘simple’ answers of religion fall on deaf ears when spoken in the midst of grieving. They might provide hope for the mind, but the heart still sinks down, as if chained to a cannonball.

Perhaps this is the result of the Fall. Perhaps it’s a mystery God intended for us to grapple with to push us closer to him and his mystery. Either way, the connection I felt in that room reminds me yet again of the fact that we humans are all in this together. We are all human. We all live on this Earth and breath the same air. We all must eat food grown in the soil. We all yearn for refreshing drinks of water. We all grieve death and we all rejoice when new life comes into the world. I’m convinced that all the hate and fighting in the world would lessen if enemies attended the funerals of their enemies. If Christians saw how Muslims grieved for their dead. If Muslims realized the depth of sorrow Jews feel for their lost sons and daughters. What a different world we could live in.

The ceremony came to a close with everyone in the room lining up to pay the teacher their last respects. Every person who passed the casket, starting with the husband, leaned down to kiss the woman’s forehead or one of the small pieces of wood painted with a crucifixion scene laying on her chest. Soon, everyone who wished had passed and the casket was hefted through the doors and down the stairs before turning right up the hill into the cemetery. I was wondering when the food would be eaten when I saw my family heading towards the door, motioning for me to join them. We turned left at the bottom of the stairs and as I fell into step behind Tania, Andrei, Adriana, and Maria – Andrei’s mother – I turned to look back and saw the last of the people following the casket disappear through the tree branches as they climbed a steep set of concrete steps and passed into the knee high grasses and weeds of the cemetery beyond a low wrought iron fence.

Joseph Teipel