Wednesday, December 12, 2018
As human beings, we look for meaning everywhere, superimposing it over everything that comes into our lives. The Australian aborigines believe that the world was vocalised into existence, literally sung into creation, and that the song needs to be continued so that reality can flourish. We are no different, giving identities to our household objects, cursing our computer when it misbehaves or urging our spluttering car toward home. We see patterns where, without us, there are none. A world that responds to our awakening gaze, and freezes again as we look away.
As undertakers, we work in an area where meanings blur and identities become less certain. For us, a body is just that; a body. Something awkward and heavy to be treated practically between us, to be lifted and moved, dressed or washed. But when they are in the presence of those who loved them, they become people again, suffused with personality and history, mute vessels for love and longing, themselves but changed. It is to witness this change that we gently lead the living toward, no more certain as to what it means than they, only sure that it is as important as it is painful.
The picture above is of one of our lowering straps, part of our meagre collection of professional equipment. We have two of them, simple strips of furniture webbing that we bought thirteen years ago in a haberdashery shop in Cornwall. You can see the colouration of the soil on them, their history stained into the edge. The red thread marks the midpoint. It rests over the centre of the grave, a guide for when we stretch them over before the coffin is laid on top.
They are just material, yet for me they are one of the most powerfully resonant things I possess. They have lowered old men and children, people whose deaths were a longed for mercy and those ripped from their familyʼs arms. They have held mothers leaving behind shellshocked children, people who have done terrible things, and those who have had terrible things done to them. They have slipped through mine and Claireʼs hands a thousand times, and the handʼs of grandmothers and fathers, lovers and friends. They are tinged with our blood cut by the edges of coffins, stained with soil and mud and grass and sweat, and of course, with tears. The tears of people doing the bravest, hardest, saddest thing of their lives, gently lowering their beloved down into a grave.
They fit into a spread hand, yet reach into eternity. Not just bits of woven cloth, but portals, ladders to another world, or at least to the end of this one. At times they appear like mandalas, or spiraling universes. They seem to possess a patient wisdom, to have personality. We certainly have shared history.
I wonder what part they will play in my own end, whether their frayed edges will still be strong enough by then. In my secret heart, I know they will, that they are an umbilical cord reaching out into the womb of my own death, raveling me nearer.
Hopefully, when my time has come I will be burnt on a hill. If I am, them perhaps one should be wrapped around me, the other to journey with Claire to who knows where.
These decisions are not ours to make, and maybe they will slip through the hands of my family as they lower me down into the ground. Where ever I am going, I have confidence that the straps will see me safely to the end. They always have.