“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”

Psalm 119, v105

The Amsterdam Bible Museum organises an Art Prize each year, and exhibits a shortlist of entries for the prize.  This year artists were asked to submit New Media entries inspired by the theme of Psalm 119, and particularly the line “I am a stranger on earth”.

Only one entry could win, but this year another entry was given an “honourable mention” by the panel of judges. 

“Lonely funerals” are those funerals where there are no mourners at all.  Only the four pall bearers, the undertaker, and a civil servant representative from the Dutch social services attend the service.

Since 2002 a varying group of poets have organised themselves through a foundation called Stichting De Eenzame Uitvaart (The Lonely Funeral Foundation) to ensure that a poet attends every lonely funeral in the Amsterdam and Hague area, and reads out a poem which has been composed specially for the occasion.  The project is co-ordinated by the poet, F. Starik, who has attended 72 such funerals and whose entry received the honourable mention.

F. Starik’s installation at the Bible Museum is a silent white room where the walls and the furniture are shrouded in white sheets.  Even a video of one funeral is seen only through the white sheets.  On the wall, in Dutch and English, is Starik’s poem ‘Songloed’ or ‘Sunglow’ which begins:

“Noem ons deelgenoot.  In feite delen we niets/Call us companions, when in fact we share nothing.”

The film running behind the sheet carries the poem set to threadbare, hauntingly simple music and is a montage of documentary pictures of one funeral recorded, against Starik’s wishes, by Dutch film makers.  Starik describes the lonely funerals project as “a slow work of art, whereby each deceased person writes a new chapter in the great book of oblivion”.  The poet has perhaps four or five days notice of the funeral, and only a skeleton of details of the deceased’s life.  The poet reads out the poem between the first and second piece of music, but “there is no audience to hear him.  He speaks into emptiness.  The lonely funeral is not theatre.”

Nor can the poet replace friendship.  The poet’s role is to salute someone he has never known and will never get to know.  The text accompanying the exhibit concludes with the words of the neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks from his book The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat:

“From a biological and physiological point of view we do not differ all that much from one another, but from an historical point of view, as a story, each of us in unique”.

The dignity afforded the lonely funeral by the addition of a carefully created poem  – which had the lonely deceased as its inspiration – touched me deeply.  I enjoyed sitting there silently, enjoying the rare experience of being a solitary stranger.

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