Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Cypriot Funeral

I’m not a big fan of funerals and I dare say neither are you.  I’ve never been to one that was a barrel of laughs, but then you don’t really expect much comedy at them anyway.  I once told my wife that at mine I’d like her to get the minister to change the traditional words, so that they intone “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky”, but I  don’t suppose she’ll be able to pull it off.  Actually I’m not that bothered about how my own funeral goes, so long as there’s a decent turn out, preferably with a couple of mystery blonds just to get people talking.
The trouble with funerals of course is that someone has died, and consequently it behoves any sympathetic mourner to act with decorum, maintaining a solemn silence to the point of barely being audible during the hymn singing.  For the record, I’m a non-believer but I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Abide With Me’, albeit for football rather than religious reasons; it was once a traditional part of the pre-match build up at cup finals in the days when Wembley Stadium was frequented by the good people of Lancashire mill towns.
Things are done slightly differently in Cyprus.  I lived and worked there for 4 years, and in the course of my duties I got to know George Cacoyannis, the senior partner in a Limassol law firm.  George’s brother Michael is (or was?) a well known film director, whose credits include ‘Zorba the Greek’, but George never mentioned him at all.  George was a nice old chap, I’d guess in his late seventies and pretty much retired, but he still liked to be involved personally when his company was acting as the Treasury Solicitor’s agent, which is what brought me into contact with him.
When George died it was right and proper that I attended his funeral, which took place in a large Greek Orthodox church.  Whereas in the UK the family of the deceased sometimes ask for “No flowers please, but donations to …”, at George’s funeral the path leading to the door was lined with trestle tables, each one manned by volunteers collecting money for various charities.  Then on entering the church, George’s immediate family were lined up to greet the mourners.  There was much shaking of hands and offering of condolences, and then you went further inside to find somewhere to perch, along with about a hundred others.  And I mean ‘perch’, because the pews in this particular place of worship were hard, wooden high-backed affairs with a very narrow ‘seat’ at the height of the small of your back, which you just leaned against.
I’d never been to any kind of Greek Orthodox service before so I’d no idea what the form was, but as it turned out, there didn’t seem to be any form to it at all.  The service had already started as we arrived and it basically seemed to be lots of chanting by priests, while the congregation treated it as a social occasion.  George was well known in Cyprus in his own right, and this coupled with his brother being a movie director would explain the TV camera crew inside the church.  The majority of people were constantly getting up and wandering about (partly I imagine because the perches were so uncomfortable), greeting acquaintances, joking and laughing in barely hushed tones, and kissing the odd icon.  Quite a few went out by a side door for a cigarette, and yet more left all together when they felt like they’d stayed for as long as protocol demanded.  This presumably is why the family greets the mourners on the way into church, rather than on the way out!
I didn’t go to the burial itself.  My colleague Demetris told me that it wouldn’t happen for some time yet, and since we’d already been there for an hour and a half, we too decided to bail out through the side door.  As we did so we could see others just arriving.  In Cyprus, life goes on – even during a funeral.  It seemed disrespectful at first, but in a way I rather liked it.  So if you should come to mine, feel free to make yourself at home; pull up a pew and chat up a mystery blond.

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