The other day I was hurtling down the road to Chișinău in a rutiera being piloted in that take-no-prisoners manner typical of most public transportation in Moldova when the brakes were applied forcefully enough to obtain most passengers attention away from their smart phones and tablets (this visual will become more relevant in a moment) to seek the reason for our sudden loss in velocity. Traffic is pretty much non-existent on the one-lane highways that thread across Moldova, mostly because passing the car in front of you seems to be de rigueur once you’re close enough to read the license plate. (No matter if the car is doing 80, it must be passed because it is in front of you. You kind of wish they’d apply this same thinking to their education and economic policies.)
We slowed to a relative crawl for about five minutes before a crowd of people carrying balloons, flowers, and candles trailing a căruță provided the explanation: of course – a funeral! We edged our way slowly and respectfully round the procession and were afforded a nice view of the corpse, artfully framed by roses bunched atop yards of mounded tulle, lying in repose on the flatbed of the horse-drawn cart. The red lipstick was a nice touch, despite her obviously advanced years. Go out in style, I say.
Once the plodding hearse reached the rear view mirror, a number of signs of the cross were proffered before all heads bent in unison back to their respective screens. Ah, Moldova!
The random juxtaposition of old and new still takes me by surprise, even after two years. Living as I do so close to the capital and within the physical confines of a western-European designed and funded organization, I am less exposed to the old ways that remain tenaciously embedded in Moldovan village life. When a beneficiary dies here at the center an ambulance (or at least the Moldovan version of an ambulance) comes to collect the body, transporting it, I assume, to some other location for the family to retrieve later. (Since many of our beneficiaries’ family members live outside of Moldova this could take some time.)
I do have many PCV friends, however, who have attended the departed through the various processes that deliver them to their final resting place, as well as the traditional observances that trail in their wake.
Here’s how it goes*:
- Collect expired family member from scene of expiration if this does not happen to be the home. One incidence I heard about involved a brother and sister driving 2 ½ hours from their village into Chișinău to retrieve their father from the hospital where he died. Dressing him in his nicest suit, they then loaded him into the back seat of their compact car, positioned upright as there was not enough space for him to recline, which now causes me to wonder how many back seat passengers I pass on the highway might be corpses heading home for burial.
- Place family member on table in prominent location in home. Surround him or her with all available chairs. Borrow some from the neighbors if possible. People will be coming and going and staying and talking and sitting in silence and praying for hours and maybe even days. There’s a lot to remember and honor and say.
- Make enough food to feed an army. Or at least all your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, local government employees and school teachers, resident Peace Corps Volunteer, the neighborhood alimentara owner, rutiera driver, and any other important village contacts who will come to pay respects. And don’t forget the house wine. And cognac.
- Send someone for lumber to construct a casket. Send someone else to dig a grave in your family plot in the village cemetery.
- Find a căruță if you don’t already have one. Transfer body to wagon bed. Surround with mounds of flowers. Collect people. Parade through the village, down the highway, uphill and down dale, to the final resting place. Place body in casket, wrestle casket into hole. Shovel dirt.
- On day three, nine and forty, and then on the one and seven year anniversary of the departed’s expiration, repeat step 3. (Without the body, of course.) On the year anniversaries you must present a circular loaf of bread punctuated by a slender candle wrapped in a dish towel to all your visitors.
- And then, of course, every year there’s Paștile Blajilor, or “Memorial Easter” as it’s called by us English-speakers. On this day, which is traditionally the Monday after the first Sunday following Easter, but usually encompasses that Sunday as well since most Moldovans have so many relatives piled up in the local cemeteries that one day won’t cover them all, families bring huge baskets of food to the cemetery and spend the day visiting, gossiping, and laughing, sharing their biscuiții and bomboane and perjole, most times while standing wedged between monuments and crucifixes and tombstones and knee-high wrought iron fences. Some families are perspicacious enough to crowd a permanent little picnic bench between graves so they have room to set out a nice spread. Oh and let me pour you some house wine. And a shot of cognac.
*My intention is not to poke fun at the Moldovan way of doing death. I am trying to convey the utter physicality of it, the deep involvement with the corpse, the practical elements that must be attended to by family and friends, the inability to delegate these tasks to “professionals,” whatever that term actually means besides just being somebody not connected to the dead person.
If you get the sense that Moldovans are much more involved with their dead than, say, your average Neptune Society-card carrying Californian or east coast Congregationalist, I dare say you’re on the right track. I have not spotted a funeral home anywhere in this country. Corpses are not yet an incorporated business here. Moldovans deal with their dead. They collect them and dress them and display them and transport them and dig the holes to deposit them in, and then continue to celebrate their life and influence and accomplishments long after the bodies have been placed in those graves. They spend a goodly amount of time looking back, remembering, leafing through old albums, telling stories. I guess it is a bit of a misnomer to call them “departed”, actually, as they seem to be hanging out in the penumbra of their family’s lives for decades past their expiration dates.
Recently, I spent a good couple of hours with the 86-year-old host-grandmother of one of my Peace Corps friends. The second time she hobbled out with an old shoebox full of photos, I gracefully acquiesced and settled in for the ride. We covered the story behind every frayed and yellowing picture, even those so faded I couldn’t make out a face. When there were duplicates – and there were many – she remembered another aspect of the personality of the person/s portrayed to relate to me. (Since most of her teeth were missing and she spoke a heavily-accented Moldovanești, I was only catching every third word anyway. She might have been telling the same story over and over again.)
Lest you attribute this persistence to the age and senility of my raconteur, let me assure you that I have been the recipient of such serial tales from the mouths of much younger, spryer folk: Nina, my host sister in Stauceni, celebrated the year anniversary of her husband’s passing my first summer in Moldova (and it was a celebration; let me say that outside of Terms of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway and my own 93-year-old grandmother, I’ve never known a happier widow in my entire life.) I was held sway for an entire evening by the story of their meeting, marriage, his war-record and drinking buddies, their children’s nativities, his long, slow decline from stomach cancer, and the details of his expiration, complete with photos and souvenir medals. There may have been some house wine involved, too. And this served up by a woman who didn’t much like her husband at all.
Once I was stopped in the training room by one of the social assistants here. She was weeping prodigiously and cradling the framed photograph of a handsome middle-aged man. She’s Ukrainian, so her Romanian is just barely better than mine, but I managed to parse out from the picture and towel-wrapped loaf of bread she pressed into my hands that this was the son whose car had been hit by a train five years ago. (She missed him so much that she observed his anniversary every year, rather than keeping to the requisite one and seven.) Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand most of what she said, she didn’t stint on his story. It was very important that I appreciate what an amazing son, brother, and father he had been. Her pain was so palpable that the tears were soon coursing down my face, too, and we ended the whole thing dissolved in each other’s embrace.
When my sister was killed in a head-on collision almost 30 years ago, a family friend identified her body at the morgue. Neither of my parents wanted to etch their memories with a stark, blue-lit close-up of her smashed-in skull or deflated ribcage. We held a memorial service at some generic, non-sectarian chapel, where we placed a framed picture on an easel front and center depicting her mid-laugh, eyes bright, hair a spun-gold halo, turning toward the camera, alive, rather than a dead body. Her friends took dutiful turns at the lectern at the front of the room, clutching sodden pieces of notebook paper and swabbing their faces with tissues. I don’t remember any member of our family talking; I think we were too stunned at that point, trying to assimilate the meaning of the sudden hole in our ranks. There was no body present; she was cremated and for some reason the remains were not ready in time for the event (how long does it take to burn a body? Is there a line? I picture a traffic jam of caskets, jostling for a lane…)
Later, I went with my dad to the crematorium to fetch her “ashes.” I put that in quotes because it is a nice little linguistic notion we have about a body that’s been burned – that all that remains is a neat, fluffy white pile of ashes. Not so. Because, of course, cradling the box on my lap through the car ride home, I couldn’t stop myself. I needed some notion of termination to take hold in me, a finale, in order to stop expecting her to pop around the corner and kid us about her creative April Fool’s gag. So, I opened it up. Carefully wrapped inside a sanitizing layer of plastic, I found chunks of concrete, similar to what you might have after going at a sidewalk with a sledgehammer. With teeny bits of irregular turquoise and deep garnet pebbles mixed in. And some silver (I surmised those were her fillings.) I sifted it through my fingers, thinking, This is you. This is all that’s left of you, Lorraine. Chunks of bones and tiny gem-like pebbles. It didn’t compute. I couldn’t make the transition between the articulated limbs, the smell and feel of her, that cloud of hair and puffy upper lip, the dim constellation of pale freckles across her nose and cheeks, her perfectly arched nails and knobby knees, with this box of crumbled cement between my thighs. If you don’t witness the burning, it’s hard to believe it really happened.
(Ironically, several years later our family benefited from a lawsuit filed against that crematorium. They were discovered to have indiscriminately mixed people’s remains during their processing, so the bones I was sifting through were not likely all, or even mostly, my sister’s.)
A couple of weeks after this, a group of us drove down to Laguna Beach with the box. I vaguely remember my current boyfriend and the man who had identified her body squabbling about who was going to scatter the contents (in the end, I think they divided it up.) I and my parents, brothers, assorted girlfriends and family friends watched from the cliffs above as they both paddled out on boogie boards, dodging surfers and swimmers, then stopped beyond the wave break, and proceeded to wave exuberantly. We all waved back until one of my brothers pointed out that they weren’t actually waving, they were busy tossing Lorraine across the water. No one said anything after that. The wind was loud and there was a table of people enjoying Caeser salads and a bottle of chardonnay not three feet away. It turns out that scattering dead people’s remains right off shore in California is not really legal. No sense in drawing undue attention.
Most years I don’t recall my sister’s expiration date until some days or weeks after it’s passed. I’m always gratified those years that I do remember, I don’t know why. I make a point of composing a little letter to her in my head, updating her on what’s been happening with me, how her neice is doing, the latest family travails. For some reason I don’t feel right doing this if I’ve forgotten on the actual day of her death – like I’ve missed her birthday party or to attend her wedding or something. Since she was cremated, there exists no dedicated place to visit, to bring flowers or to say a prayer. My mother and I have talked – at the 20 and 25 year anniversaries, I remember – of getting her friends together, looking up her old boyfriend, having a party. We still have yet to make that happen.
She is slipping silently away, becoming more ephemeral each passing year as I age and my ability to recall details fades. She died before the age of cell phones and camcorders; there is no recording of her voice. All of our videos are old school, silent and grainy like my memories, and the world they portray seems alien, with longer shadows and a clausterphobic feel. I wrote recently of losing a piece of her clothing that I had carted around with me for decades. I liked having that shawl as it gave me a tangible connection to her – something that touched her could touch me still. I fantasized that little flecks of her skin were still caught up in the threads. (This might actually be kind of gross if I hadn’t broken down and washed it years ago.)
I know that my family did the best we could, given our circumstance and the cultural medium we were steeped in, at the time of my sister’s passing. But I am aware of the movement growing within the States to bring the dead home, to wrest back responsibility for the passage of the corpse to its final resting place, be that fire or grave. I have a friend who kept her husband’s body at home in the bed where he died for the three days that his Buddhist faith proscribed before calling the authorities to collect him. It was a defiant act in a world chock full of rules and regulations around what should be, could be a far more intimate event.
I think the Moldovans have done well in blending progress with tradition in many areas. I fervently hope that I never see a funeral home built in this country. I admire them for their resilience and stoicism melded with an authentic propensity for feeling their emotions, year after year after year. The dead are not departed; they remain deeply embedded in the lives of those who remain.
It has been the ubiquity of social media, ironically, that has returned bits of Lorraine to me. Her closest friends have friended me, and they still post pictures and anecdotes about her, stuff I’ve never seen or heard, that serve to refresh her presence and allow her to again have an influence upon my day. I cry often. And laugh and smile and find myself caught up in an unexpected memory, a clear picture of how she was in a certain instance, on a certain day, and I fancy I can almost hear her voice whispering on the breeze.
That image sticks in my brain, I don’t know why: the busload of me and 19 Moldovans, inching by the wagon carrying the corpse with the bright-red mouth, framed in roses, trailed by a parade festooned with candles and balloons. Everyone pausing, looking out the window, heads turning slowly. Hands slowly tracing crosses from forehead, to shoulders, to heart. Then the van speeding up and all heads bowing down, again, to little screens cradled on laps in front of them.