"On Death and Cymbals"
In Galicia, northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, we like to bury our dead quickly. The passage from brand new corpse to six-feet-under should be completed in under forty-eight hours. It is good form to take under thirty-six. (The reasons for the haste are unclear. To those of you venturing answers based on what you know about Southern Europe, I’ll say it cannot be the terror of decomposition by heat. In our corner, the temperature rarely surpasses 25 degrees: no risk of corpses rotting left and right on the third day. It’s unlikely that it is a capricious, belated influence of Islam, because we managed to dodge most of the Muslim settlement in the Iberian Peninsula. Of course, lots of us were still pagan at that stage, but that’s a story for another time).
For years I assumed that all countries subscribed to this standard; to discover that the Brits take one or two weeks to bury their dead made me think of my adoptive country, for the first time, as barbaric. (It would appear some places in the south of England take as long as four weeks these days. But at this, even the natives blink in disbelief.) The discovery, five years after I settled in Britain, wasn’t the product of experience – I had never, by then, been invited to a British funeral. And here’s a second important difference. An average Galician – one of no particular significance in her community – will easily attract a few hundreds at her burial. Social conventions (no invitations distributed here) dictate that you attend the funerals of people whose children or siblings you might know in passing – and, of course, of everyone else who is closer to you than that. There’s also a tradition of reciprocation. When it’s your turn, you’ll easily get into the hundreds.
But back to the barbaric customs of the Brits in leaving their corpses to languish. I learned about this from a Galician-turned-Brit like myself who boasted forty years in a cozy city in the North with her Galician husband. The husband, already in his seventies, died unexpectedly. Over the course of two weeks, the baffled widow headed family expeditions through graveyards in their Northern city and the surroundings. After the fieldwork was done, a decision was made over tea. The winning cemetery was the one with the most memorable sea view, because the husband liked the sea.
The leisurely shopping-around for cemeteries while the corpse shrank at the funeral directors’ struck me as an extravagance that only very wealthy or very odd people would indulge in. It meant, for starters, that the woman and her husband had failed to prepare in advance, like any self-respecting Galician would do. If you’re to be buried within two days, it is bad form to make your family waste their time visiting cemeteries and ranking them by the beauty of their sea views. It is assumed that you will have acquired your own space and that this will be ready to go at short notice. That’s just something you do, something your parents teach you to do (or rather, something you will have seen your parents do in your adolescence, when they’re still young, but starting to understand that life might not be forever).
After my conversation with my fellow Galician, the extravagances and divergences surrounding funerary customs had piled up in my mind to the point that, if someone had told me that death is the great equalizer, I would have laughed at their face.
Years later, the rapidity of Galicians at burying their dead is a point of contention in my marriage. My Scottish husband has nightmares of falling into a comma during one of our holidays in Galicia, being mistakenly proclaimed death and taken under the ground mere hours later. In the meanwhile, I have nightmares about my corpse being left out in the Scottish cold for weeks, then forgotten about.
But most of the time, on the subject of death, my husband is merely annoying. He asks questions with obvious answers, like “How do you make sure people can make time or organize transport to attend the funeral?” I patiently explain that you just drop whatever you’re doing, get into your car or take the first plane or bus. This is death. Death doesn’t wait. It didn’t wait for me when my grandmother died. He keeps asking “How about choosing the music for your funeral, getting a priest or minister that you get along with and hopefully had some appreciation for the deceased, making sure the service is meaningful?” I repeat, this is death. You don’t think about songs when you’re dead, not even when someone around you is dead. But the truth is, sometimes I think about a few melodies I wouldn’t mind having played at my funeral.
Then I think of those two wondrous days back in Galicia when I was a cymbal. This doesn’t mean my perception of the Brits as barbaric has changed. I was loafing around on my childhood’s bed at ten on a Saturday morning – the first morning of my customary Christmas holiday back home. My grandfather dozed next door. The evening before, upon my arrival, he had made out-of-character comments about winter swimming in the sea (a pastime he had given up ten years ago). On Sunday evening, my grandfather was under the ground and I was a cymbal. The first strike came haphazardly just after eleven on that same Saturday morning. I was still fresh out of bed. Grandfather was dead in his.
I vibrated. Untimely, stridently. Then, for two days, I couldn’t stop. They took grandfather away, put him under a glass in his best suit, then phoned us that we could go. Funeral directors – everyone uses them now; holding a wake in one’s house is so out of fashion. People walked in. Visiting cards, flowers, coffee (mostly from the coffee machine, a couple of times from a nearby bar), words. Conversations – some light-hearted, that you wouldn’t think should happen in front of a dead person: work, food, Christmas because grandfather died just a few days before Christmas. Each of these was a new strike to the cymbal. I kept vibrating.
In the afternoon we organized shifts so that we could go back home one at a time, freshen up, grab something to eat. Because of the compression, people drop by all day long and someone from the family needs to be on guard to receive the condolences, so this takes some organizing. There was joy and a budding emotion in drawing the rota; we were all in it together. So there was in going back home together after the funeral directors closed, quickly tucking ourselves into bed without thinking much. The cymbal was still vibrating, but it was muffed by then – perhaps by a sense of satisfaction that on that paced day, we’d accomplished something. We held a vigil for grandfather on his last day he walked on this earth. That’s quite an accomplishment.
The next day, the strikes started again – at double the speed, because this was the day that mattered, the last day. In the early afternoon, grandfather was taken under the ground and the cymbal was left outside, still vibrating. Roughly, untidily.
About the author
Eva Ferry is originally from Galicia in Spain and a resident of Glasgow in Scotland, Her fiction and non-fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in the journals and zines Longing for home, Salome Lit, The Public Domain Review, The Corvus Review, The Cold Creek Review and Jumbelbook, among others. She was a runner up in the competitions From home to beyond (poetry) at the National Library of Scotland, Weegie Wednesday/Hospital Broadcasting Service Shorts, and the University of Glasgow's Creative non-fiction competition.