Thursday, September 9, 2010

Birthdays and Funerals

Pink rose at the house of the deceased

When I was heading to Tbilisi last week, my host-father Lasha was supposed to drive me to Senaki at 10 p.m. in order to catch my train, but at around 4 p.m. all hell broke loose; everyone in the house was running around and Lasha looked flustered. I asked him what was wrong, and he tried to communicate to me that a cousin had been hurt by hitting his head off of something, and that he needed to leave immediately (Lasha knows next to zero English, so our means of communication are fairly comical).

Ira called my English teacher Tamari to explain to me over the phone that Lasha would not be able to drive me to Senaki, but I could take a marshrutka (quick note: I’ve been misspelling marshrutka the whole time, leaving out the second r; as German Pauli would say, “Whoopsi.”) at 5:30 p.m. All of this was fine by me, but I didn’t really understand the seriousness of the situation until while waiting for the marshrutka, Luka told me that the man had died.

I felt bad leaving for Tbilisi on the day of a family tragedy, but there was little I could have done by sticking around. When I got back, I was informed that I’d be going to the funeral with them on Tuesday (which I already covered here). Part of me was hesitant; during all of the orientation and cultural information sessions, we had never covered funerals. I had been told not to miss a chance at going to a Georgian wedding, but when it came to funerals, I had no idea what to expect. Although part of me felt proud that the family would already include me in such an important event. 

Lasha’s cousins came into town and stayed with us, while two other family members from Bandza also accompanied us as we took the two family cars to the man’s village, which was up the road past Martvili and into the foothills of the North Caucusus.

About ten kilometers past Martvili we get onto this dirt road littered with giant potholes, so we have to drive at about 20 km/hr, which is basically a slow crawl compared to how fast we usually drive. That road followed along a river that snaked it’s way up the valley between giant foothills on both sides. After about an hour in the car, we pulled up to a house surrounded by parked cars. All the women entered the yard first, while the men followed behind.

The house was similar to most Georgian households. It was two stories with double-doors on the first floor that probably opened up in to some sort of family living room (they were closed for the viewing), and then an outside staircase on the right side that led up to the second floor with a balcony area. The viewing was in the main room on the second floor, so the visitors were ushered up the staircase group by group.

While waiting to be ushered up, from the yard I could hear a feint wailing sound. As we got closer to the staircase, the sound got louder and more intense. It was at that moment I thought, maybe I’m not ready for this.

I haven’t been to my fair share of funerals (I mean, I’m no Harold or Maude) and those I have been to haven’t been open casket. I had no idea what to expect, but from the continuous sound of crying coming from the second floor, something told me that whatever I was about to see would be startling.

I was trying to pay attention to how most of the men were acting, in order to have some sort of code to follow. Most of them around the yard were fairly stone-faced, but the men who were making their way down the stairs from the viewing room were using their handkerchief (all Georgian men carry handkerchiefs, mostly to keep the constant sweat off their foreheads) to dry their eyes and clear their noses. But one thing I was sure of was Lasha not crying.

Lasha is a fairly intimidating physical specimen; he’s short but stout, with arms like a lumberjack, and such a square jaw that he looks cartoonish at times. I hope to never see him unleash fury (in fact, I bet on not seeing it; he’s a kargi katsi [good man]), because he looks like he could tear a man apart limb to limb. Add to the appearance his deep Mingrelian voice and you get what I might call, a pretty tough guy.

So as we are making our way up the steps and the wailing keeps getting louder, I’m starting to get a little nervous. We get to the balcony and then walk into the main room. Right as we walk through the doorway, all the men I’m with begin sobbing, including Lasha. I look around and the room is bordered with tons of wailing older Georgian women, and the casket is in the middle of the room. The casket was open with just the head of the man showing, green with decay and bruises from his accident still showing. He looked younger than his age (34) but I only got as close as I needed and turned around, as did all the other men who I followed out the door to pay our respects to the father, brothers, and nephew of the deceased who were waiting by the entrance (also sobbing uncontrollably). After that we walked down the stairs and went around to the back where all the men lit up cigarettes and immediately stopped crying. After that, the only time a few of the men got stuffed up was when they were lowering the casket into the grave.

The whole procession only lasted a few minutes, but it was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life: the wailing (that I believe were Georgian Orthodox prayers), the decaying body, and the male sobbing (which seemed like it was turned off and on with a switch, but of course was not, a subject I’ll get to later). It was something I would expect out of a romanticized novel set in the 17th century, but never see myself being a part of.

After viewing the body, we sat down in the eating area which was behind the house, seated over 150 people, and was covered by old Marlboro adds that acted as tarps. The men sat together while the women stayed in the viewing room to mourn. For thirty minutes we ate and toasted to the dead with wine from pitchers that were never empty (people constantly came through refilling everything on the table).

After four hours of waiting in the yard; they carried the casket out and the procession was led by all the children carrying the flowers that people brought, followed by six men who carried the casket (still open). The men took turns carrying the casket up a steep hill behind the property to the cemetery (I am not doing that hill or the difficulty of the task any justice; it took thirty minutes to get up there and I was winded by just walking up it). They carried it around a small church at the top of the hill three times (to represent the holy trinity, I assume) and then slightly down hill to the burial plot. They closed the casket, lowered it into the ground, and then everyone took turns tossing a handful of dirt on top of the lowered casket while a few men busied themselves filling the grave with cement and dirt. Afterwards, we ate again and then headed home at 8 p.m. while it was getting dark.

I kind of breezed over the procession, but the viewing was the part that really struck me. What I’m about to say may not pertain to a majority of people’s opinions, but it’s my honest feeling about how death is handled back home as compared to here in Georgia.

In the States, funerals are mostly seen as a celebration of the life of the deceased. We celebrate their life through remembrance and by gathering with their friends and family. It’s not looked down upon to cry at a funeral, but for a person to hysterically sob is almost seen as inappropriate of selfish. This is about the deceased, not about you. Pull yourself up and keep it together for just a few hours, at which point you can seek solitude and bawl your eyes out for hours on end. In fact, the real mourning period is supposed to take place immediately following the death and end right before you have to put on a happy face and be sociable. But it doesn’t always work that way.

When my Father’s long-time girlfriend died in a car-crash when I was 16, I didn’t cry until the middle of the ceremony held at the Phipps Conservatory (about a week after the accident), and I couldn’t control myself at all, sobbing hysterically for a majority of the service.

My Father didn’t spout many tears immediately following the passing of his mother, but when confronted with delivering a speech at the ceremony in Pittsburgh, he could barely utter two words before succumbing to sobs.

When I found out my best friend had a very serious cancer last fall, I was in shock for three days, before at a random moment whilst in my bedroom at home in Charleston, I began hysterically crying for two hours.

Grief or the realization of it, as much as we want to control it, can’t be controlled. It can hit us at any time and when it does, we are completely vulnerable to it. No matter what the rules we laid out or envisioned for us dealing with any sort of sad news, few times does it go as planned.

All of this is to say how tragically beautiful and profound it was to walk into that room on Tuesday and see all of that pent up grief let loose. The discipline it takes to control the most spastic of emotions, and then to be able to drain yourself just like that…

Our program coordinator Nino has constantly preached to us that this experience is a give and take, and just like any other cultural exchange, you each learn and borrow from each other. Attending a Georgian funeral on my 25th birthday was an experience that I’ll be able to draw upon for the rest of my life; something for which I will be forever grateful to the Gabunias and the Georgian people. Mshvidobisa.

Looking down on the burial after the long procession up the hill

1 comment:

  1. Max, you are a wonderful writer. I found the differences between our cultures interesting and am glad you see the US form of grieving as a positive thing. I still really miss your grandma, but cherish the way her life was celebrated and the speeches you and Ryan gave at the luncheon were the nicest I have ever heard. If you can believe it, next Sunday marks 15 years that Pat passed away, when you were so young. He'd be very proud of what you are doing now. Have a great time and thanks for sharing all the stories and photos. It's my weekend cultural treat! Katherine