Mother to Mother: A Bilingual, Interfaith Funeral

by Elizabeth Cunningham

Roberto died at High Valley, our center, after a long illness. During his last weeks, his friends Karen and David cared for him there, joined by his mother Luisa from Venezuela. Until her recent move to a nursing home, Karen and David shared a house with my mother-in-law Olga, also from Venezuela. Olga’s last years at home coincided with the years Roberto, a musician from New York, stayed at High Valley frequently. Whenever he visited, he played Venezuelan folksongs on his Cuatro for Olga. In her nineties and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Olga knew all the words and sang along, tapping her feet to the rhythm. Olga and Roberto were more than compatriots. They came from the same island, Margarita, and spoke the same dialect. With his music, Roberto restored Olga’s memory of her earliest years.

Roberto requested that his ashes be scattered at High Valley, the place of his deep friendship with Karen and David, the heart of an earth-centered community in which he joyously took part whenever he was present. The morning of his funeral was warm and clear, the air full of birdsong, floating seeds and blossoms. The chaplain from hospice, a Roman Catholic nun who spoke fluent Spanish, came to officiate. Of those gathered, five spoke only English; three were bilingual, and Roberto’s mother spoke only Spanish.

Sister Maria was dressed in a simple suit with a cross on her lapel. She had been making visits to the family for the last two weeks when hospice services were put in place. She was quiet and confident; she had created a simple structure for the ceremony that left ample room for spontaneity. Her translations were seamless, her ways of including others, sensitive and inspired.

Karen opened a book of poems at random and happened on one addressed to a mother who has lost a child. At Sister Maria’s suggestion, Karen read a line in English and Roberto’s cousin translated in Spanish. Then Sister Maria read in Spanish the Gospel story of the disciples recognizing Jesus in the breaking of bread. “And so,” she concluded, in Spanish, then in English, “when you hear music, that is how you will recognize Roberto, our hermanito. You will know that he is with us.”

Spontaneously we sang a chant that Robert had loved and that we had sung to him in the last weeks. “We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the one.” Encouraged, Roberto’s mother then sang a hymn to the Virgin Mary calling her to guide Roberto’s spirit. We all joined in the chorus, “Ven, Maria, ven!” One of the most powerful, intimate invocations of the divine mother I have ever heard.

Sister Maria then told us it was time to return Roberto to the Mother Earth. Luisa became very calm and still. She took the bag of ashes and went to a metasequoia tree that Roberto had loved. She flung his ashes; the wind caught them and lifted them into light before they fell among the roots. With sureness and strength, Luisa moved to the lake and gave ashes to the water, and then to the fire pit where Roberto had cooked arepas many times. And finally she walked to a huge copper beech that she called “el arbol rojo.”

At Sister Maria’s instruction, I had fetched a pitcher of water, “so that she does not have to wash her hands at the sink.” Underneath the red tree, where the last of Roberto’s body had been returned to the mother by his mother, Sister Maria poured water over Luisa’s upraised hands, murmuring prayers that needed no translation.

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Elizabeth Cunningham May 25, 2010 - 11:58 pm

Maeve speaking: whenever people gather in a circle, that is divine, whatever name you want to call it. That is the center of the world.

faerian May 26, 2010 - 2:48 am

Blessings to Roberto and those who love him…thankyou for a glimpse into a sacred celebration of a life

Anonymous May 26, 2010 - 6:38 am

Crikey, Elizabeth. You must have caught me at a tender moment. I have no comment today. Only my happy and sad tears.

Brooke May 26, 2010 - 7:03 am

So beautiful and rich. What a beautiful tribute, and to share it here and allow others to partake and celebrate his release…thank you. You always know how to soften me to what is real and sacred.

Anonymous May 26, 2010 - 1:29 pm

This blog touched my heart so deeply. Thank you for sharing this poignant account of a beautiful funeral.

Unknown May 27, 2010 - 12:49 am

This was beautiful, and it was a beautiful event for a beautiful man. I would like to post it on High Valley's website.

CLF May 27, 2010 - 2:35 pm

Thank you for the reminder to cherish life AND death… they are points on the same wheel. This was beautiful and the tears are still streaming. I didn't know Robert but through you he has touched my heart. May the Earth at High Valley carry him gently…May the Air at High Valley be full of his Song.

Tim Dillinger May 27, 2010 - 9:57 pm

Well, this one made me cry.

Yes, out of grief for the loss that his friends and family feel at his departure…but moreso from the beauty that his life posessed…and the beauty that his community…both blood and spiritual family, found in one another…the ability to see each other despite the 'barriers' (culture, religions, creeds) that so often keep people apart…

Pure beauty.

Usha June 2, 2010 - 12:48 am

What grace. How majestic and glorious. My thoughts are with Luisa.

Thank you for sharing this.

~ June 6, 2010 - 2:48 pm

Roberto living in music, and when we all make a center of the world, and when we remember who he was. I hardly knew him, yet he was so obviously a treasure that I spoke about him to my kid, just to let her know what sort of place he found, and made around himself.


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