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Review: The Lonely Funeral, ed. F. Starik

Paul McDonald, ‘Envoi’ no. 182: June 2019

Since 2002 a project has been running in the Low Countries that aims to produce poems for those dying without friends or family, and to have them read at the funerals of the deceased. It began in Groningen, the idea of the poet Bart F. Droog, then was developed in Amsterdam by Starik, and later in Antwerp by Inghels. At the time of publication, there have been 222 lonely funerals in Amsterdam, and 112 in Antwerp, and the book collects together a selection from both cities, numbering 32 in total. Each poem is accompanied by a report on the circumstances of the death, and an account of the ceremony. The commissioned 'Duty Poets' are supplied with as much detail about the subject as possible, but this is usually very sparse. All of the deceased are anonymised - either with false names or initials - although some have died 'name unknown', like the subject of the very first funeral, for which Starik himself provides the poem. Here the deceased is presumed to have been an illegal immigrant from the Ivory Coast, and poem opens:

Goodbye, nameless man, I salute you as you pass
into the last of lands where all are welcome,
where no one needs to know a thing about you.
Goodbye, man with no papers, no identity.

The objective is always to add dignity to the deaths of those who, for various reasons, are socially estranged or forgotten. Several have clearly led dubious lives, others have merely been unfortunate, while some have had no lives at all, like the abandoned baby who is the subject of the Maarten Inghels poem, 'Your Round the World Trip in Forty Four Days'. This commemorates a baby left for dead by his parents in Edegem Hospital, having lived for just '22 days in 2013, and 22 days in 2014'. The poem closes:

... still toothless, and already Europe's lost son,
with your unnamed passport and faulty compass,
and two parents' addressless regret.

The most affecting poems are those that enable us to emotionally engage with the subject, of course, and this is achieved via the little humanising details that good writers have a knack of finding. Research sometimes throws up interesting facts about a person, as with the subject of one poem who was once a champion cyclist; sometimes these details can be harrowing, as with the man who died at home with an aged wife who, thinking he was a doll, continued to live with his corpse for weeks, or the drug dealer who perished when bags of narcotics burst in his stomach. The book reminds us of the countless routes to sadness and tragedy in a world where it's so easy to be ignored, forgotten, or ostracised. What links the poems is a wholly non-judgmental spirit of sympathy and respect: they reveal poetry as the ideal medium for honouring, and in a strange way reclaiming lives that are otherwise lost to the world. I recommend The Lonely Funeral without reservation.