problem with dying,Ē said someone the other day, ďis that everyone
forgets so quickly.Ē Two weeks ago, I would have agreed. Death has
always been a bit of a problem to me, too.
first funeral I went to was that of a school friend in Tobago. She was
buried in a white dress with pink ribbons. The casket was open, so the
curious had their eyeful. I think those who are truly mourning find it
unbearable to look. Ingrid lay there, looking so unreal as her school
friends filed past her. Her statue-like stillness haunted me for years. I
swore I would never go to another funeral. But some you have to attend for
the sake of the living.
I saw another open casket. She was a young girl. Her make-up haunted me
for months. I now know why. The bright cosmetic colours - pink rouge, red
lipstick - belong to warm, alive faces. On the dead, it looks as if
youíve tried to paint a statue, and makes it all macabre. I was haunted
again. And finally decided that I only want to remember people I liked and
want the memory of the way they did ordinary things, like how they lost
their temper, the way they spat out watermelon seeds, and how they washed
their hair on the way home from the beach. I think the biggest memorial to
the dead is to be a true witness to their real lives, their loves, their
unhappiness, their irritating ways, their weaknesses and their laughter.
In death, we see the sum of peopleís lives, and if their good tipped
over their bad then they represent hope for the human race.
decided against funerals because they made me forget. Because they made
friends, and people you admire, as unreal as a marble statue of an angel.
Because they separated you from the person by making you believe that they
were off to this eerie afterlife where everything was a gaudy candy pink,
no one laughed, or made jokes and everybody stared at everyone else with
beatific saintly smiles. And if the afterlife is such a wonderful thing,
why do we resist death? Why do we go into it kicking and screaming,
holding on desperately to every last bit of life? No wonder everyone steps
out into the sunshine with relief. Jokes are cracked; food is eaten until
that uncomfortable feeling of our own mortality and the thought of that
cold pink room of angels go away.
many years, I was haunted by the thought of ďmortal remainsĒ. Every
crude newspaper photograph depicting decomposing bodies, skulls,
disembodied heads would feed my nightmares. So would the pictures of war
and the Holocaust. Itís important to see pictures of war so people can
be startled into seeing the horror of it. But itís horrible to sell
newspapers by showing dead people. It cheapens human life, gives it no
more value than a dead dog on the highway. And thatís also why I hate
funerals. The way the curious simply peer. I donít care if youíre
dead. You still deserve your privacy.
have never, however, walked out of a funeral dizzy with life, infused with
the light of a person. I did that last Friday. From the life and death of
Erika Hawkins, I have understood that you die as you live.
you live by rote, not questioning anything, not allowing yourself to take
risks; if you never push yourself to be the best you can be in your work
or personal life; if you seek instead the quick, easy way out of boredom
or unhappiness with routine banal pleasures. In short, if you try to do
what everyone else is doing and never listen to, or develop, your inner
voice, you will be forgotten.
Erika: when she gave, she gave generously, fully, not necessarily material
things (although she did that, too), modestly, quietly, to the deserving,
but of herself. As I said at her funeral, she really saw people. She used
her third eye, the one we all have, but ignore, the eye of instinct, to
see straight into you. By seeing I donít mean the ordinary sight and
sounds of our everyday masks, the ones we put on bravely to face the
world, our little vanities and insecurities. No, a light in her burned
straight into us. And saw not our flaws, but our potential, our beauty.
And with this third eye she saw what was most important to us in the
world, be it our children, our work, our loves.
she was also scrupulous. She was impatient with anything that was second
rate. Iím not talking about material things here. I am talking of the
human heart. She was forgiving, but she didnít have time for people who
never took the time to find out who they truly are. She was impatient with
the mimic men and women who live life on the surface. As a result, Erika
always made real contact with people, from gardeners to ambassadors, from
teenagers to the elderly. She gave. She gave warmth.
really cared about your aspirations and your dreams, no matter how small
or big they were. As Diana Mahabir said, she not only saw our potential,
but contact with her made us push ourselves to be better. Erikaís
contact with the people she loved and who loved her was so powerful that
five, ten, 15 minutes after she died, people turned up to see her. They
didnít know she had died. They just came to visit. She gave love in
abundance, the real thing, and she got it back in huge showers. She
brought people together. We began talking like old friends, all of us
instinctively feeling: well, if Erika liked or loved you, you must be
okay. It didnít feel, and still hasnít felt, like she has gone. As if
by magic, members of the Jewish community appeared.
read the last rights in the wonderful rich language of Hebrew as her
daughter, Francesca, said, ďIt was so Erika.Ē I know what she meant:
spontaneous, loving, warm. The funeral was the same. A conch shell from
the boys in Tobago, wild flowers, a card with a lush garden, a red rose.
Hebrew prayers, words of love and friendship, laughter. The joy she gave
us was alive in the hearts of the more than 300 people who came to say
look at her smiling face in the photograph and thank her. She had enough
light in her to light up each person who cared about her. Thank you for
that light. It will stay in us all our lives and, hopefully, we in turn
can share it with those we love and admire.
to come back to my first point, people die as they live. If they are like
Erika, they are alive in us always. Death is no longer the enemy.