My 86-year old father Vasilios, recently died.
I’ll always call him “Dad” even though he was my adoptive father; my biological father died in 2001.
Dad’s passing was my first opportunity to see how Greeks do death close up.
The preparations for Dad’s death actually began in the hospital. The day before he died, Mum summoned our local Orthodox priest. He was pleased to find Dad conscious.
“I was here visiting someone else and heard you were unwell, so came by to see how you were feeling…”
This was the priest’s explanation to Dad for his visit. Dying people were sometimes traumatised by seeing the priest, so he now came pre-prepared with an excusatory line. Some Greeks believed the sight of the priest meant they now “had their ticket” and were cleared for departure.
We gathered around Dad’s bed. It was a surreal feeling to be chatting pleasantly, even gossiping.
The day after Dad died, our house was a blur of visitors. They brought bottles of brandy and jars of coffee. The vast majority were Greek widows wearing black. It was as if my whole life has been defined by such women.
The old ladies in black were at every Greek gathering I’d ever been to, talking quietly, respectfully.
When I was young, I was scared of them. But as I grew older, I found myself developing an immense sense of admiration for them, their stoicism and strength. I even found myself querying whether they possessed some form of mystical powers.
The funeral director visited to collect Dad’s burial clothes. Mum had selected his best navy suit, a matching waist coat, a white shirt and dark red tie. She also chose a pair of black shoes he’d never worn, black socks, crisp white underpants, and a new hat he’d only recently purchased from a pharmacy.
Mum added money to his wallet. The money was for his safe journey to the other side; apparently, there were tolls that needed to be paid. She also added a notepad and pencil, a comb, a set of komboloi worry beads and lastly, Dad’s walking stick, a trusted friend in his later years.
Watching Mum fussing and carefully arranging the items neatly on a chair, my heart ached. She had been caring for her husband for over half a century and knew this was the last thing she would ever do for him.
Mum wanted to send him off looking immaculate, as the final expression of her love. I couldn’t help be struck by the arrangement; as if someone was preparing to go out for the day and considering how they might look.
For the funeral, Mum and I drove to the church in Dad’s car. We lit candles in the narthex and took up seats in the front row. Dad was already waiting for us, his casket facing east with the feet toward the altar.
“The servant of God Vasilios, who has fallen asleep…”
The priest swung the censer and led in the singing of the hymn, Trisagion. The chanter was in his nineties and had the voice of a songbird.
When the ceremony is over, the mourners touch the casket, say “goodbye” to the deceased, before giving condolences to the family.
Mum had selected his best navy suit, a matching waist coat, a white shirt and dark red tie. She also chose a pair of black shoes he’d never worn, black socks, crisp white underpants, and a new hat he’d only recently purchased from a pharmacy.
I was one of six pallbearers at the cemetery. The priest recited the Trisagion. Mum began to cry as the casket was lowered. She folded a black scarf over her head to signify the start of the forty day mourning period.
Dad was buried with his feet facing east, ostensibly so he could sit up and watch the rising sun. A bowl of koliva, a dish of boiled wheat with honey, symbolising the cyclical nature of life and sweetness of Heaven, was emptied into the grave.
The funeral director offered a small bucket with soil; each mourner took a spadeful and tossed it into the grave, followed by rose petals. With the help of his mum, our eleven-month-old son tossed a few petals, and said a final goodbye to his papou.
My wife handed me our son. He was calm in my arms, watching the wind push a few errant petals into the grave.