We had just finished our church staff meeting when the office door opened and in walked Ani.* A member of our congregation, she was weeping profusely. Her mom had passed away a few days prior. Now she needed to bury her, but she had no means of transportation to pick up the casket, take it to the apartment where her mother lay, and then move her mom from the apartment to the cemetery.
Please bear in mind, as you read this, that, even now, certain areas of every-day life in Romania are antiquated (and sometimes almost barbaric), compared to North American ways. Often there are no funeral services, no peaceful, plush-carpeted, fully equipped funeral homes, no elaborate caskets, no-one to walk you through the process, even if you had the money – which so many don’t – and for many, no possibility to purchase a cemetery plot in advance – only a scramble to find a place in an overcrowded cemetery at the last minute, with sweet talk and a bribe.
We immediately offered Ani the church van, but she knew of no-one who could drive it. The men on our staff, knowing full well the Romanian traditions and superstitions surrounding death and burial, were all suddenly able to come up with previously-made appointments. The pastor had a full day ahead of him, including two airport trips to drop off a visitor and pick up a team, so he called Marie*, a Spanish missionary who works with street kids, to see if she would be willing to take on this ministry opportunity.
Marie confided later that she was terrified, knowing that the deceased, according to tradition, would be transported in an open casket, and she was sure she would panic at traveling with a dead body. So she agreed, but only if someone would travel with her. I didn’t have the necessary papers to drive the van, but volunteered to join her in this mission of mercy. Marie and I had spent many hours together on the city streets in the wee hours of the morning, chasing after delinquent street kids, or taking them to the hospital after a brutal gang fight. We decided to consider this another adventure, as well as an opportunity to bless Ani.
The seats were duly removed from the back of the van to make room for the casket and an odd assortment of plastic chairs and stools (we’d find out later what these were for). Then we set off with Ani, first to the casket-makers, where she had ordered a light plywood, simply-made casket that came in two pieces; the bottom half flimsily lined with muslin.
It was only then that I realized I had set off on that stiflingly hot morning dressed as if I was headed for the beach – beige and brown flowered slacks and a bright orange top! Hardly funeral attire. Marie, never one to fit the norm, was dressed in blue jeans and a sleeveless white top, with tufts of her short hair sticking out from under a baseball cap. What a pair!
The casket was loaded into the van and then we headed to the other side of town to pick up Ani’s mom. In spite of our objections in light of our inappropriate dress, Ani insisted we come up to the apartment with her. The darkened sixth-floor apartment was full of mourners; men in black suits and the women dressed in black from head to foot, including the ever-present head covering. We were introduced to the pastor – his eyebrows slightly raised at our appearance. Ani’s mother, also dressed in black, was laid out on the bed – a frail, sweet-looking 91 year-old.
There was much discussion about how to get the deceased down to the van. The first suggestion was that a sling be made out of a sheet in which to carry her down, but finally it was resolved that two of the men would bring the bottom half of the casket up (via the six flights of stairs, as the apartment elevator was too tiny), place her in it, and then carry it back down.
Since the apartment was so crowded, the pastor decided to conduct an impromptu service on the front steps of the apartment block. So the deceased, in her topless casket, was placed on the steps to the side of the front door, and about 20 of us gathered around on the pavement in front. While some of the family wafted off the flies (no embalming here) and shooed away the stray dogs, the pastor made the most of the fact that many people were passing by on the street, and many going in and out of the apartment block. He preached an evangelical message so impassioned that Marie and I were almost born-again, again! The curious drifted in from a nearby park, and many, dramatically challenged with concern for their eternal souls, were greatly moved.
The service ended and the casket, still with the top off, was placed in the van. Neon-coloured hand towels (yes, hand-towels) were tied around the side view mirrors of the van and accompanying cars with a dual purpose, apparently to ward off evil spirits, and also to alert traffic that this was, indeed, a funeral procession.
Then came great discussion about who would travel in the van with Ani and her mom to the cemetery. Ultimately, five heavy-set women crowded in, precariously lowering themselves onto stool or plastic chair around the casket. Bear in mind: no embalming, it is 35 degrees Celsius outside, and the women had a great fear of draughts – so the windows were open only a crack. It was quite overwhelming.
Marie was actually pleased with the neon-coloured amulets – helped to ward off evil traffic cops, who are not likely to stop a funeral procession for a traffic infraction. However, many of them did a double-take as we passed through intersections. Women are never seen driving a funeral vehicle, and certainly not two women that looked like us!
It was a great relief when we arrived at the cemetery – I wasn’t sure my heaving stomach was going to take much more. Ani’s mom, of Pentecostal persuasion, was buried in the only plot available to her – in a Catholic cemetery. But first the priest insisted on performing a brief service around the casket – for a price. The grave-diggers were there on hand, waiting for a tip and a chance to finish up their work, and then it was all over.
The gratitude Marie and her family expressed to us was quite overwhelming. But we were simply grateful we’d been able to help – and to pour out some of the “fragrance of Christ” in the midst of a family’s heartache.
This is a true story, but to bring it to life click here and then click through the photos. It is quite a remarkable pictorial journey. And although it is a Romanian Orthodox church funeral with much more pomp, ceremony and Orthodox ritual, it is very similar to our experience – and heartachingly such an antithesis to what we experience in our western culture. Here (arrow down the page) is the ‘van’ scene.
*not her real nameCopyright 2011