(First published in 2005. This is a recollection of the day ‘we’ buried my friend Christian.)
Old stones surround us in this ancient hall; stacked haphazard shapes, one on top of the other in uneven rows. Rows that sometimes blend; what regularity they have interrupted by some larger specimen here and there. It occurs to me that these golden stones are like the years – dusty, interlocked, related, combined, broken yet completed. It is a thought that befits the moment.
The sunlight streams through the lofty coloured glass, and sends a hue of green across the scene – auroral in the meandering incense fume. A curl of vaporous grey-green that lifts itself higher and higher like some part developed ectoplasmic apparition; the one, perhaps, that in the secrecy of my mind, I wish for at this time.
For a moment, the reason why I’m here returns to mind and I cast my eyes towards the floor; a grey stone floor worn by the passage of time, smoothed by uncounted and forgotten souls, and an uneven resting place for quietened feet.
There is a simplicity about this place. Yet a solidity. We sit on thick, solid oak planks, polished and smoothed as the floor. They are simply suspended by being set near each end upon two small pillars built of smaller stones; like those I use to build our garden walls, with small irregular stones set in light beige-grey mortar.
Cobwebs hang around the higher parts of the windows, and in some corners where the wooden ceiling meets the walls, dark, dusty, drapes swathed by passing time. They emphasise the magnificence of the place. Is there a ladder made that is long enough to reach them? I find myself wondering how old they are. How many years have they hung there… tantalising.
An expectant hush comes and goes in here. Whispered notions spoken in one another’s ears. It is a gentle babble, a soft one, broken now and then by the quick spark of kisses given cheek to cheek, into air, as friends and neighbours meet.
There is a reverence in the air. Perhaps it is only shown by these whispered words, and the attempts at quiet movement – the curtsies, the genuflection, and the crosses drawn. And when an occasional sharp sound echos across the hallowed nave it is abrasive to the atmosphere – even to those who feel that they may not belong.
Two mellow bells start to chant a mournful peel to tell this world there is sorrow here. No further than the distant hillside, in and out of the local fields, around the village houses, their ringing a soulful message, even to those unaware he has left us. Their sound enters the open doors behind me, and brings yet more people; so many it seems as if there will not be enough places for them to sit.
The increased babble is softened by the plangent organ that now fills the space with its gently resonant voice.
All these noises and their cause, as in the past, a salve for sickened bellies and feared minds – a ritual for a short lived forgetfulness. A measured dose of some well practiced opiate that nullifies the concept of our own mortality, and in its place swills the eyes in tears, chokes and tightens the throat, and gives us but a vague anticipation of our own very far off salvation.
We wait with our heads and eyes avoiding a backward glance, in case Christian appears – his spirit risen, and his body defeated by the final but painful interlude that came into his life to steal him away. And when it took him, it took with it all the things that he had become to us: The friend, the wise man, the neighbour. The comrade soldier, the helper, the father. The grand papa, a voice in the village Chorale, a workmate, and for Simone the loving husband.
Honours are to be given here today. The simplest expressed by those like me – who have nothing else to give but their presence, their respect, their condolences, and their love.
And then suddenly there is a momentary fluster, and he comes – triumphant, but silent… followed by his family, who, with much dignity, walk the walk they always feared.
He is led by the Mayor who proudly carries the leading pennant, one of three, each representative of something Christian himself honoured by his involvement during his life. A quick succession of strong arms bear him in and up the aisle: four loyal friends carrying out their deed of honour, carrying and placing him – still, and lifeless inside his oak casket with bronze handles – onto two very plain and spindly trestles. And then these same bestow upon him another honour – one that would have brought tears to his own eyes – as they set about carefully covering him in the Tricolore.
Then begins the eulogy for this man – my friend and neighbour. Led by his daughter, who struggles with her grief-strangled voice and much determined tears, to speak about her beloved Papa.
Prayers are given here today. A mystic mix of French and Latin that have served their purpose through the years; practised by heart by the well practiced, and observed pragmatically by those of us who are not so well versed in their incantation.
Next, there are many silent tributes spoken by each and every member of the congregation, who, in time honoured fashion, almost by rote, file up to his coffin and at it’s head briefly stop to pay respect to him… and seated beside him, to Simone, who with great dignity, and red rimmed eyes, accepts the touch of those who care, and who in their own way mourn for him too. Her hand feels quite cold to mine.
The priest showers him with holy water, the four friends once more take up his weight and carry him out. More carry the many flowers, the priest his simple cross, and then, finally, we, carry our lightened hearts out into the sunshine of a Dordogne summer day. Lightened, that is, by our sense of having somehow recognised the majesty behind Christian’s life; of having witnessed his passage into the hands of his God; and of having given something of ourselves to him in these last moments of his day.
Behind the hearse we walk. Not in ordered columns, but in our own selected space. A slow paced journey through the hot, quiet, reverential streets. The sunlight reflecting off the stone walls of the houses sends a golden glow to highlight our procession… We march with solidarity of purpose: To witness Christian’s return to the soil.
We enter through the tall iron gates, and up the gentle slope. The scent of freshly cut grass and many flowers fill the air. There comes a hush as we form a dense half-circle around the grave. No one speaks. Even the birds are silent. But as his casket reaches the bottom of his newly created grey marble home the silence is broken by a hollow thud, and that is swiftly followed by the swish of the lowering guide-ropes being withdrawn. He is now at rest.
There is a sudden fanfare of bird song, just as the priest recites the oft spoke words of dust to dust, and amid the rattle of the symbolic earth that is thrown, scattered, down upon him, I hear his voice once more say the few words of English he would sometimes proudly speak to me, “Sank you very mooch!”
It is the end of Christian’s Day.
© Allen Ansell 2021