It is a breezy Toronto morning, the sky a searing blue. We are gathered at the grave site, a large group of us, the remnants of the one who died forty days ago, snatched in the prime of his youth. We huddle together, black figures against the clear sky– his mother, his widow and children, his brothers and their children, as well as relatives from near and far–our grief made more intense by the heartlessness of the open space in which we seem to have been thrown for this brief ceremony, grief having found a home in the marrow of our bones.
The occasion for this May gathering is to commemorate the fortieth day of his passing. Church tradition says that the soul of the deceased wanders the world for forty days, as did Christ in the desert, until it ascends to heaven on the fortieth day for eternal peace.
Der Hayr (title of married priest, in Armenian) stands at the head of the grave which does not bear a stone yet, just a demarcated rectangular patch of grass. In Armenian, our ancestral language, he begins with a prayer, then a lament for the dead, and then a short eulogy. He speaks in a voice muffled and made uneven by the wind. But his words are carefully chosen, and his demeanor, like ours, shrunk by the horror of the event. “Think of his departure from us,” he says, “as an absence, as though he has embarked on a long journey. Think of him as a traveler.”
On this site, on this ground where our loved one was given back to the earth, Der Hayr’s evocation of passage captures something else as well, something which binds the believer’s unwavering faith to that of the more secularists among us. For who among us standing around the rectangular patch of green has not known the bitter taste of leaving, of starting over, of establishing new roots in distant shores? For who among us has not known that what sustains us across oceans and continents is not only hope but also the luminous memory of what we left behind? For who among has not known that each funeral and memorial gathering is also a mourning for all the dead whose graves are scattered in the four corners of the world? Who among us does not know the full meaning of the words with which we try to bid farewell to the dead while consoling ourselves: “May the earth be light on you.”
Der Hayr ends his eulogy; we chant the final prayer for our dear one. We stand, unable to move, and from somewhere deep within, the words surface with a mixture of tenderness and ferocity: May the earth be light on you.
Dear cousin, may the earth be light on you. May your passage be a shimmering glow; may we be equal to your bountiful presence.