The last goodbye

Summertime, heat-rash time. I itch and scratch, with the predictable result that large areas of my skin turn blotchily red. My surface is literally irritated, and I feel irritable at this betrayal. That most intimate friend and the one I usually take for granted, my body, has let me down, but of course it is useless to tell the rest of myself that my body cannot help it. And, when faced with physical discomfort and this high pitch of body awareness, my spirit is just not interested, it is off on summer holidays of its own. This time last year, though, I was made aware of both body and spirit in quite a different way.

We are our bodies, as I am learning all over again while scratching moodily, but attitudes to that fact and to bodies themselves are greatly subject to change. The Victorians, for example, tried to achieve the absence of the live body: think of the covering nature of their clothing, the men’s beards and hats, the women’s dresses and bonnets, and the way in which certain words (leg, ankle, breast) were not supposed to be mentioned in polite society. Concentration on heart, soul and spirit were the thing. Yet said live body was not to be denied, and families were usually large, while the dead body was very much a presence at often splendid and always ritualistic funerals. Perhaps it is no accident that the modern Olympic Games, replicating the ideal of the perfectly-tuned body conjoined with the spirit to drive it, started in the late dusk of the Victorian age.

Today sex has replaced religion as an interest and hobby. Western youth are obsessed with the notion of the body beautiful: gyms, relentless exercise, power walking, power eating, power everything, are all designed to produce the perfect package, presumably for purposes of sexual display and not much else. On a Sydney beach a few years ago, a crawling nine-month old baby latched on to the wrong breast, a mistake easily made, I imagine, in a large field of topless bathers. Much hilarity ensued, and the hapless young woman speedily learned what breasts are really for.

But few people want to know about an old body, let alone a dead one. I attended my first funeral when I was 19: my grandmother had died, the coffin was closed, and in the non-conformist Australia of the day, the graveside was considered ‘no place for a woman’. Now I notice the increasing occurrence of memorial services in both Britain and Australia, occasions at which the inconvenient body is conspicuously absent, having been disposed of well beforehand and very privately. The memorial service, demanding an abrupt adjustment to absence, acknowledges the spirit, pays tribute to the life and work, but ignores, so to speak, the vehicle that made all things possible.

In rural Greece, where I have lived for the last 24 years, bodies are treated and viewed according to the generations. Youth is flaunting flesh as never before, but a widow following a traditional way of life will still wear deep black for the rest of her life, and will never appear in public without her headscarf. One often sees a wiggling, lycra-clad nymphet keeping very incongruous company with her soberly-dressed grandmother. My mother-in-law, the redoubtable and very traditional Aphrodite, it seems to me now, having concealed her body during decades of widowhood, then relinquished it quite deliberately. There came a day when she simply gave up walking, even though there was no physical reason for her to do so. The simple fact of the matter was that walking had always been associated with work, and she no longer wanted to think about either. I like to think that she wanted to concentrate on mind and spirit.

And so, over a long period, Aphrodite’s life contracted, and her whole person simply faded away. In the week she lay dying, in June 1996, her room was always full. Her female friends lined the walls and chatted softly; every so often one would get up, totter to the bed and lift the sheet in order to check the condition of Aphrodite’s hands and feet. ‘Still warm’, would come the announcement, along with theories about her colour and the shape of her jaw, and then the waiting would continue.

The minute Aphrodite had drawn her last breath, action was the thing. Vaso, her eldest daughter, produced a strip of white linen and bound her mother’s jaw. Wine was produced for the bathing of the body, and the neighbourhood women arrived and went about the business of the laying-out. Eventually Aphrodite was readied for her last journey, clad in the complete costume of dress, gloves, headscarf and shoes, and placed in a coffin ornately carved with the double-headed eagle of Byzantium. Her shroud was covered in red and white carnations, an icon placed on her breast, while candles burned at her head and feet. All night she lay in the sala, the best room, while people came and went and paid their respects: Vaso sat by her mother until dawn.

Practically the whole village accompanied the open coffin to the church. Three priests officiated, the voices of the choristers dipped and soared, and the impression of the message ‘I am the Light of the World’ took on reality as each person lit a candle and then snuffed it out at a certain point in the ceremony. At the last, the mourners trooped past, made the sign of the cross and kissed first the icon and then Aphrodite herself. It was then that I was reminded of a lesson I learned long ago: simple communities have always known what the therapists try to teach us, that we must say a genuine goodbye in order that we ourselves can continue to live.

Memorial services are held at the very least, on the third, ninth and 40th days after a death, after six months and on the first anniversary. Grief is replayed, and thus slowly diminishes in intensity, enabling an absence to be coped with. Final acceptance comes with the ritual of exhumation, at which point the stark fact of death is confronted as it has not been before. When the exhumation is over, the living are truly free to accept a new life based on an absence that has now been ritually assimilated. 

My priest father-in-law, a man I never knew, was exhumed in the summer of 1980. Being very new to rural Greece then, I could not face such a foreign and frightening ordeal, and so cunningly volunteered to mind all the children in the family. By 2003, however, that generation of children had grown up, and escape avenues were cut off: I was going to have to attend Aphrodite’s exhumation.

Exhumations are usually scheduled for the Saturday before Pentecost, the Orthodox All Souls’ Day. Early in the morning, Aphrodite’s two children, accompanied by their spouses, arrived at the graveyard, a place brooded over by mountains that seem, to me at least, to teach lasting lessons on the subject of human limitation. I was relieved to be spared a major part of the ordeal, the actual digging up of the body, because the verger/cantor/gravedigger/general factotum met us with the words, ‘Ola kala’ (All is well). If there is any flesh adhering to the bones, it is evident that the devil has been at work and a reinterment must take place.

Like Vaso, I am the eldest child and the eldest daughter, but never have I been so thankful for my Australian birth as I was that day. Vaso lifted her head, set her jaw, and disappeared into the charnel house with her basket, which contained, among other things, a pair of rubber gloves. She had to wash her mother’s bones. They were then placed in a big plastic trough-shaped container, boarded over and with an identifying photo on top, there to await the liturgy and the removal to the final resting place, a plain wooden box with Aphrodite’s name printed on it.

We returned in the evening to find the graveyard startlingly en fête. Whole families were there: older people strolled up and down and shook the hands of those people whose relatives had been disinterred, even as the priest was reciting the service among the generalised buzz; the boards were removed from the plastic containers while wisps of incense floated ceiling-high. Children ran about noisily and played among the gravestones; our own lot, older and more sophisticated than the ones of 1980 had been, skipped into the charnel house and lit candles that they then placed in among the bones of their great-grandmother Aphrodite.

I stood to one side, holding the bowl of kolivo, boiled and sugared wheat, which is ceremonially offered to all present. In a very ancient custom, those who eat of this believe that they have achieved reconciliation with the dead; any enmity that existed between the living and the deceased is also dead and gone. I do not like kolivo, but made sure that I ate a token amount, in honour of Aphrodite and of our edgy relationship. She had given me the culturally-prescribed hard time; not only was I a daughter-in-law, I was a foreigner. But with the passing of time we had mellowed towards each other, and so I stood, ate, and remembered.

Although I was 35 when I migrated to Greece, it was here that I grew up, being forced to test and use parts of myself that I had never used previously, for there is not even an attempt at disguising harsh reality in this land. The facts of life and death are as bare as the mountains and as the bones we all become. 

Gillian Bouras is a freelance writer, whose books are published by Penguin Australia.

 

 

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