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Essay: 'funeral (adj.)'

Written by Fran Fernández Arce

funerals are for the living. we see them as objects but they begin their lives as adjectives. accessories to grief. additions to the notion of rite. ritus. a religious ceremony, most likely derived from the root ‘re-’. to reason, to count, to observe with a careful eye. funerals are public affairs in the sense pain becomes visible at every turn. 

          when my grandfather passed away in 2021, I missed his funeral. missing implies failure, an accidental misfortune, lack of precision. to go wrong. truth be told, he was in Chile and I was in England and Chileans bury their death within the span of two days. by the time of landing, touching ground, he would have been long underneath it. i declined to receive any photos from my siblings. 

          i declined to visualize their pain because my pain was too abstract to be confined in colours and shapes. in the late 13th century, pain meant the agony suffered by Christ: a punishment, penitence, retribution. to hurt meant to atone but grief is accidental in the sense that it is never expected even when anticipated. it surges at you, less like a wave, more like a flooding. flōd. an overflowing, Noah’s deluge, a tickling of droplets around your ankles that, before you even know it, has pulled your head under water, where air cannot reach you.

          in ‘Memorial’, Alex Mepham describes the arbitrary nature of memorial ceremonies. “The evening has come,” it begins, “and once again we are collected // by an unlit barn”. funerals are gatherings for the living. celebrations of life, so they say, where anecdotes sprout at the same pace flower arrangements materialise. “We are instructed,” Mepham’s voice continues, “to howl at the wind / in unison” [1]. voices mingle to the point of uniformity, thoughts are repeated, movements suddenly choreographed. every death must feel raw and, yet routines are necessary. 

          i declined to receive any photos because i was being selfish. self-seeking. i wished for my grief to be contained in the corners of the farmhouse in Suffolk i had been living for the past couple of months. i did not want it to spillover like tears across my face. my mother’s father, my grandfather, i was only five when he passed away. cancer. the crab, a tumor, the stars painted by arbitrary eyes. all my memories of him are of him in bed, wheelchaired, in pain, in a casket. eventually, boxed, for lack of a better word. buxis. a receptacle and a densely packed shrub, boxwood, but also a blow. somehow, both a container and the release of energy, inward and outward motions. like heartstrings tugging and falling apart with one single thrust. 

          funerals contain grief, which is to say, they keep it at bay while being defined by it. i did not wish the last image of my grandpa to be defined, fixed in the canvas of my memory, by the grief of others. i hated the transatlantic, transcontinental distance between my pain and my family’s but also relished it in a perverse way. to relish something means to consume it, to savour it with your teeth. from reles, that which leaves an aftertaste, the bits of scent and flavour left behind. my grandfather, my mother’s father, lives in whiffs of tobacco that resist the passing of time.

          i relished the solitude of my pain, the anonymity of the flat East Anglian landscape, unconcerned with loss. 

          Marie Howe’s famous poem, ‘What the Living Do,’ approaches the aftermath of grief, which is to say, the ever-growing layers of everything that lingers: “Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. / And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up / waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of” [2]. i sometimes wonder which days would my grandpa enjoy most. the birthday that wasn’t quite his birthday because nobody could remember the exact date, not even him; the first day of summer with the grapevines luscious and heavy with their emerald-tinged burden; me, finally coming back.

          when someone dies, the living are left behind. left to reassemble. it is a transcending in the sense that the quotidian elements of living remain impervious to change. Ada Limón’s ‘Not the Saddest Thing in the World’ shows the life-changing-yet-ordinary nature of death:


Before I bury him, I snap a photo and beg 

my brother and my husband to witness this 


nearly clean body. Once it has been witnessed

and buried, I go about my day, which isn’t


ordinary, exactly, because nothing is ordinary

now even when it is ordinary. [3]


we don’t have to witness death, however, to know of its presence because death has no contours. it happens, like catastrophes are always being defined by having once happened. death is never in the process of happening. a dying person is still a living one, still breathing. 

          to bear testimony, to hunch your shoulders with the weight of observance, funerals are for the living to make sense of what escapes definition. ‘witness this,’ meaning see what i see, define its identity like constellations in ancient times. use your words to describe the unspeakable. truth be told, funerals are written in the present tense but death only happens after it has been named. 

[1] berlinlit (Winter Issue 2022/23)

[2] What the Living Do (1998).

[3] The Hurting Kind (2022). pp. 20-21

About the Author

Fran Fernández Arce is a Chilean poet currently living in the intersection between Santiago, Chile, and Suffolk, England. She is a poetry editor for Moonflake Press and a poetry reader for Chestnut Review. She can be found on Twitter as @dylanblue3 and on Instagram as @effie.1995

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