Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Celebration of Death?

One of the main attractions in Maramureş is the Merry Cemetery located in the village of Săpânţa. It was created by a wood sculptor named Stan Pătraş in 1935. He started painting each cross blue because the sky is where souls go, and he inscribed a witty poem about the deceased person.

Each cross has a unique inscription on it that tells the story of the person's life. It is designed to honor the life of the person as well as bring a certain happiness to the occasion, rather than the traditional mourning. It is about celebrating the life of the deceased person rather than dwelling on their passing.

I'm not so sure this isn't the way to do it. In my lifetime I've been to many funerals, but the ones I remember most are those of my four grandparents. My Grandpa Bernie died in December of 1998, and the strongest memory I have of the event is standing at his coffin while my Dad's hand shook on my shoulder right before they closed the casket. My Grandpa Morris passed away in February of 2002 and the most salient memory is of my cousin Jason walking in a few minutes late in his dress uniform from the Marines, and my grandmother crying out. My Grandma Fern passed away in September of 2009, and I'm struck by the memory of my brothers as pall bearers and my cousin Elizabeth crying at the church. All of these funerals were incredibly sad and vaguely uncomfortable.

When my Grandma Mary died in June of 2008, it was certainly a sad time. However, it was a time of celebration and discovery for me, because I had a chance to grieve before she was gone. I spent nearly two weeks with her and got to know her as the woman behind my grandmother. She didn't want a funeral, and instead of a sad one-day event I spent the summer memorializing her life. I traveled to many of her favorite places in the Four Corners region, hiking the trails she took and reliving experiences in the places she held dear. It was an incredible way to celebrate her life and process her death.

Walking through the Merry Cemetery, I was struck by the backwards traditions we sometimes observe. We stop talking about the deceased person and completely avoid any reference to those flaws that made them both human and endearing. We cry for a few days and then we mourn in private, expected to move on and process the end of a life with relative reservation and composure.

What are we doing wrong?

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps almost everything. Nouwen's chapter on sorrow and grief is awesome.