“Hurry up, the priest is waiting”… distant urgent words, caught on the wind and wisped away like a willow, along with the pastel coloured flower petals that had adorned mum in her coffin. Mourners had gone ahead of us to the cemetery but we had been delayed outside the church by the familiar and unfamiliar faces of people, from the life of Nina, eager to pay their respects.
Clutching my bag to my chest, I broke into a staccato of a totter over the mud and cobbles, being especially careful not to create another legacy of the day by gashing the heels of my new boots. People were huddled together on the narrow path, between rows of tombstones, finding familial comfort against the grey and damp sadness of the day and as I pushed my way through, a cold stab of rain-peppered wind caught in my chest and brought me up sharp at the sight of mum in her coffin, lid upended beside her (a Cypriot burial custom). An angry bed sheet slapped across her face and she looked cold, yellow, and a bit waxy and I wished (not for the first time) that I’d had the foresight to pop her teeth back in just after she’d died.
This was unexpected. I knew they did things a little differently here but was unprepared for the shock of seeing mum lying there. The urge to scoop her up and warm her in the faux fur lining of my winter jacket was hard to contain.
Before writing this I went to see how mum was getting along in her new home, with its hilly rooftop of barren red earth (*sans flowers which had apparently been filched by some poor soul down on her/his luck and reduced to robbing the dead). The mound of soil was punctured at one end by a wonky wooden cross with crooked writing on it and I assured my obsessive compulsive mother that this was a temporary measure, pending the installation in about a year, of a suitably regal headstone. As I sat there on my ankles chatting to mum we mused that this debt of nature is an odd phenomenon: our awareness of the surety of three score years and ten on this earth (or even longer) does not prevent us from continuing to shroud death in solemnity… and so, I thought, how could I possibly write a light-hearted post about my own mother’s funeral? Quite easily actually as the burial customs here are very different to those in the UK and there had, in fact, been several incidents during mum’s interment, that would not have been out of place in an episode of “In Loving Memory”.
We stood there in the cold, encased on all sides by contenders for our attention: the priest, the grave and, of course, mother – recumbent, encased and exposed to the elements. I tried my best to focus on the priest but my eyes, if only to spite me, were drawn to the red clay soil that was banked up in steep mounds on each side of the beckoning oblong pit. How would the ushers manage to lower mum into the grave without slipping in themselves? If ever a thought tempted fate, that was surely it. The spirit of my mum shared my concerns as I pictured her hovering in the breeze by a nearby olive-laden tree.
Pious concentration, strong wrists and experienced hairy hands wrestled with guide ropes and manoeuvred mum’s open coffin up and over the mounds of earth. It tilted precariously as the men jostled to keep their balance on the soft earth, while using their combined strength to lower mum “gently” into the grave. In all honesty I cannot say that the operation went smoothly as the coffin landed with a bit of a thud, (and I saw, in my mind’s eye, the spirit of mum shaking her fist and muttering Cypriot expletives). “From the soil you have come and to the soil you return” recited the priest as shovel loads of earth were chucked on to mum (another Cypriot custom) and I thought I heard the distant and impatient words… “Mind my jacket – that’s my best Marks and Spencer wool jacket!”
I was just beginning to think they would bury mum without the coffin lid when the men lowered it into the grave and, needless to say, it landed upside down. After several failed attempts to flip it the right way round, by poking and pushing with the shovel, my cousin (regretfully clad in his Sunday best) climbed down into the grave and put the lid on the right way round. “Thank you” I said quietly... the priest exhaled a glance of relief.
The coffin lid had a little glass window through which you could just about see mum’s slightly soiled face. A bystander then picked up a large pebble (about the size of a baseball) and, as is customary at burials here in Cyprus, pelted it down at the coffin with some force and smashed the window**. There were now chards of glass, a large stone and remnants of soil on mum’s face and I thought that, by now, mum would be thinking of revenge. Finally they shovelled in the rest of the soil while my siblings and I lined up at the cemetery gate where the departing mourners paid us their respects and then partook of the bread, wine, halloumi cheese and olives that we had provided, according to the custom.
And so it was done and as we retired to St Anthony's for a glass of wine, a cup of coffee and a plateful of olive bread we felt mum's presence with us saying her final goodbyes.
*The custom here in Cyprus is to keep the funeral flowers on the grave for 40 days after the burial.
**I have yet to learn the significance of breaking the coffin glass. If anyone has any information about this custom please do let me know.