Today I went to the funeral of a young woman who worked in my university’s office. I have known her for just about a year. When I think of her, the word ‘radiant’ comes to mind. She is statuesque, expressive, quirky. I have never seen her without a smile and a readiness to help. On my first day at the university, she shepherded me through the labyrinthine personnel offices and made sure that I got every signature and stamp. Each morning she greeted me warmly and gave me my classroom key. I knew she had been battling cancer for some time, and that she was undergoing treatment for a recurrence, but except for the scarf she wore to cover her bald head, to look at her was to see–life.
She died on Thursday and her funeral was today, Saturday. Compared to funerals in the U.S., this seems pretty fast, though I know in some practices, where the body is not embalmed, the funeral also takes place within a few short days. She was cremated. I don’t know if this is a typical practice here.
A part of me was the cultural observer: so, this is how Lithuanians conduct funerals. This is the way they mourn their dead. Another part was broken for her stoic mother, whose hands trembled but sat otherwise still; for her husband who wore aviator sunglasses, behind which tears fell.
I have been told her funeral was typical. Family and friends gathered in a chapel-like room at a funeral home where her urn was placed on a dais for viewing. Flowers, mainly white, surrounded the dais. There was a picture of her, which looked like it might have been taken from her national ID card–black and white with very little expression. Mementos and trinkets were laid next to her urn. Pottery angels, small stones, some candles, and a few stuffed-animal sheep. She must have liked sheep. In the background, U2 songs played. I can only guess that they were her favorite band. We sat in the chapel for about an hour. People came and went; they left more flowers and mementos. I was told that this was a time of reflection. I prayed. Some people around me whispered to one another. After a while, a priest came in and everyone stood. He read from a book of funereal liturgy. I recognized some Hail Marys. Then, all of the flowers and mementos were gathered up and all in attendance drove in caravan to the cemetery where her family’s plot had been prepared. After the priest said a few more words and sprinkled her urn with holy water, a grave digger came and lowered her urn into the hole. The priest took a handful of dirt and dropped it down the hole. Then her mother and her husband did the same. They dropped some bouquets of flowers down the hole too. Then we all watched as the grave digger filled in the hole. He was meticulous in his shoveling and scraping and forming, so that when he was finished, a perfect rectangle of raised dirt, with a cross scraped in it, stood above her. A temporary grave marker was planted in the hole. Then the family arranged the flowers and candles over her grave. A few people spoke, I presume sharing some fond memory of her, or telling her how much she would be missed. My Lithuanian is not good enough to know. Then after a few moments, we all left the grave.
I was a bystander today. Most of this is because of culture and language, and the fact that though I knew her, and I will miss her, I am not family or a close friend. So much of today I felt like an outsider, a stranger whose presence was either tolerated, or barely noticed as those more touched by grief struggled in that grief.
Grief makes me awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t like it, not just here in Lithuania where I am clearly an outsider, but even in the U.S. I never know how to comfort or how to be comforted. At my father’s funeral, I wanted nothing more than to find a place away from everyone and just sit in silence. I didn’t want to hear stories about him. I didn’t want to talk about him. I almost took my mom’s car keys and drove off, but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon her. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be alone with my grief, and so when I meet someone else in theirs, my instinct is to leave them be. To run from the awkwardness and discomfort. This is selfish, because I don’t want to be there, but I also think it is natural.
Death is wrong. It shouldn’t be here. I disagree with those who say death is a part of life. It’s not. It was never designed to be. And so when I am confronted with the unnaturalness of death, I want to flee from it. I look forward to the day when death is no more, but until then, I have to muddle through the awkwardness and discomfort. I don’t know what her beliefs were, and I don’t know what would bring comfort to her family. Right now, probably very little. But I know One who is the source of all peace, and so to Him I turn in times like these. I pray, in all of my awkwardness and discomfort, for the peace that passes all understanding to fill those who mourn. I pray for the day when there will be no more mourning.