April 04, 2012

On Death (although it’s not all that sad)

A dear friend of mine has left for the States, and is currently sitting alongside the bed of her mother, witnessing how her mom has decided to slowly let go of life. And although it is sad to see someone close and dear to you die, when it comes in old age, after a full life, there is something special about being able to be there and help in those last moments. She finds it an incredible experience, and feels privileged to be there. Her mom – of this I am convinced – waited for her daughter to come back home. She was a feisty lady not that long ago, still in charge, and threatening anyone who was not compliant to her wishes with lawyers. Yet when her daughter arrived, she just let her grip on life go. She had previously voiced that she was worried she might not know ‘how to die’.  A strange thought when you are young, but my mother voiced a similar concern last summer; that when the time comes, she ‘might forget to die.’ These things are not on our mind. Death is far away. But they are on the mind of the elderly. 

A tree growing into the wall at the Bashoura Cemetery (West-Beirut)


I walked past a cemetery in Beirut the other day with my daughter, and I made a picture because I told her the graveyard looked so beautiful in the sun. She is used to graveyards. Although she hasn’t assisted at a burial yet, every year in France, in summer, I drag her past all these WWI and WWII graveyards. Thousands upon thousands young men, French, German, English and American, lay in the well-groomed grass, side by side, and row after row. The futility of it all hasn’t dawned on her yet. Graveyards do not creep her out. She knows about my friend’s mother dying.

My daughter asked me:  “If we die, do we get buried in a graveyard like this?”
I honestly do not know. In Holland they’d bury me next to my. I do not know about Beirut. I am in a mixed marriage, and neither one of us has converted. So can he join me? Can I join him? Or are we to lie separately, divided – as always in this country – by religion. They do say ‘til death do us part’, but I think I’d rather lie together. It’s just a formality, but still. 

I don’t want to lie here,” added my daughter, “I want to lie somewhere where I can read the stones,” referring to the Arab letters on the tombstones. 


Its roots were all ove the place; a real art work

The muslim graveyards in town are often old, and a real ramshackle of tombs.  You really need to clamber over tombs to get to where you need to be. In the beginning the tombs were laid out really neatly, and in rows, but as the place got a little busy, things started piling up, pretty much like the architecture in a town. In Holland you ‘rent’ your spot at the cemetery for a number of years, from 10 to 50 years. Your descendents can decide to extend that, but they will need to pay. If they don’t, your grave gets ‘cleaned up’. Basically it disappears. I am not quite sure what happens in Lebanon. I believe that islamic law prohibits the clearing of a grave. They just keep them there until a tomb sort of disintegrates by itself. 


A tree in the grave yard

The story that follows now is not a new one, I published it once before,  but here it goes again. My husband’s grandmother died at the height of the Lebanese civil war. It was her wish to be buried in Tripoli. However, there was fighting going on in both Beirut and Tripoli at the time, and the road to Tripoli, with several militia checkpoints to cross, wasn’t altogether safe either. But you cannot deny a dying woman her last wish. Her sons were not in the country, and so her son-in-law, with her two grandsons (one of them my husband), decided they would have get her to Tripoli themselves. There was no question that anyone else could join them, the roads were simply not safe. It was mid-summer, hot as can be, and so they drive up to Tripoli, coffin in tow.
They make it passed all the checkpoints without a problem, but in Tripoli, the situation – and I am not speaking weather-wise – is even hotter. Hubbie cannot remember who was fighting whom, Palestinians, Syrians or some local sunni militia, but there were bullets whizzing by all over the place. So here they arrive, at the grave yard, and the custodian says the grave has been dug somewhere ‘in the back’ and he gestures with his hand. “Over there,” he points hastily. He’s organized a local sheikh, who will preside over the funeral, but there is no way that the custodian is going to risk his life by getting out of the safety of the gatehouse to the cemetery.


Something I see every morning as I walk to work. For the longest time I read it as 'You  are not done." 


They will have to find the freshly dug grave themselves. They wait for a while, sitting around the coffin at the gatehouse of the graveyard, for the shooting to abate, but the sheikh says it has been like that for 3 days. This could go on for hours and hours, maybe even days. There is no refrigerator, because there’s no electricity, and so there’s some urgency in getting the lady settled.
Let’s go,” says the father in-law. And here they go; the sheikh in his thick dark long mantle, and 3 men in black woolen suits, balancing a wooden coffin, in search of a grave. But the place is packed with graves, and there are no real walkways in between. They’ve got to climb over other graves in order to get to the corner indicated. In woolen suits. In the heat. With a heavy coffin. And with sporadic shooting around them. And they clamber and climb, constantly balancing the coffin, and they sweat and sweat. And they just cannot find that hole! Where’s the grave? Where’s the darn custodian?

It doesn’t take long for them to get a laughing fit. It’s like a movie, a scene from a slapstick. It just cannot get more ridiculous than this.
They eventually find the grave. The sheikh says his prayers, one of the workers of the graveyard has finally joined them, and so together they place her body, and cover it. 


A cemetery near Shatila (West-Beirut)

 My son helped bury his grandmother. From the washing to the dressing up, the escorting of her body to the graveyard to the actual burial. He was 14 then. He thought it quite impressive. Only the men assist at muslim funerals, and I think it made him feel special that he was considered ‘one of the men’. At his great-aunt’s funeral, a christian funeral this time, I practically had to pull him back into line, so curious he was as to where that coffin was going to go and how deep the hole was.

What a tree!

Death is a sad event, but when death comes at an advanced age, after all is done, surrounded by your loved ones, there is dignity in it all. 

5 comments:

Mich said...

A beautiful post. I think the saddest is for those who stay behind and have to cope with the loss, no matter what the age of the deceased. God Bless...

poshlemon said...

I love your writing.

Sietske said...

Thank you ladies! Your comments is what makes writing worth while.:)

Jean Grant said...

I lived in Beirut 1966-76 and needed info for a novel I'm writing which is partly set there. How I love this page. Thank you! I had not realized the beauty of the cemeteries.

Paul Combs said...

Loved the story, our dear Sietske. Antoinette and I miss Beirut soooo much, so we can't get enough wonderful stories about the wonderful folks who make Lebanon the special country that it is.