A poem in place of a headstone: poet Andy Jackson talks about the Lonely Funeral project
Last month the first Lonely Funeral took place in the UK, when poet Andy Jackson read a specially-written poem at the Dundee graveside of a man called Derek, a former painter and decorator who had died in a care home at the age of 63, and whose funeral was taking place in the absence of any family or friends. It was the first example of a project recently launched in Scotland. When Write Out Loud first reported that this had taken place, there was quite a reaction in our Comments section. In this interview with Write Out Loud, Andy Jackson explains more about the project:
Can you explain how the idea for the project arose, and how many are involved in it?
The project began over 20 years ago in the Low Countries, centred on Amsterdam and Antwerp, but also elsewhere in the Netherlands and Belgium. A number of poets led by the late Frank Starik saw an opportunity to use their poetic skills to offer a compassionate response to situations where someone dies with no one to mourn or remember them. In such situations where the deceased has no family or friends to bear the costs and administration of a burial or cremation, the state has a responsibility to act on their behalf. This is also the case in the UK, where local authorities conduct what used to be called a 'pauper's funeral'.
I encountered the project a few years ago at an event at StAnza, the St Andrews poetry festival. Lonely Funeral poets Frank Starik and Andy Fierens came over to discuss the project and read some poems. I arranged to speak to Frank after his return to Amsterdam but sadly he died suddenly only a few days later. About a year ago the Dundee poet Beth McDonough had contact with an independent funeral celebrant Michael Hannah who shared an interest in the idea. We started talking, and our plans have led us here.
We have a small group of 'duty poets' who will work with the project pro bono for as long as it runs, though actual Lonely Funerals are rare and therefore the duties of such poets will hopefully not be too onerous. We have pilot projects in Dundee and Glasgow under the banner of Lapidus Scotland, an organisation working with groups and individuals to facilitate writing for wellbeing. Several other authorities in Scotland have expressed an interest in replicating the project, and many poets have also stepped forward to ask what they can do. It feels like an idea whose time has come.
Have you delivered poems at any 'lonely funerals' already?
We had test events in both Dundee and Glasgow to which interested parties - poets, local authorities, funeral directors, celebrants, NHS and social work staff - were invited. With the help of celebrants, we identified some funerals which would have been 'Lonely' in that there was no family or friends present. This gave 'duty poets' a chance to work with the idea.
As you reported recently on Write Out Loud, we had our first 'real' one in May - a gentleman called Derek. Information on Derek was sketchy, but enough for a poet to work with. We delivered the poem at the graveside, but that was it - no ceremony or ritual, just the lowering of a coffin and the reading of a poem - with only the funeral director and a representative from the council in attendance. A sad end to a life we knew so little about, but at least we were there to speak for Derek when no one else could.
Is there a format, are there any rules? Should the poem be a certain length, or style?
There are no rules, though obviously the poem should be personalised and unique. Because it is in the hands of experienced and talented poets, the poem is unlikely to be mawkish or sentimental, though it should be elegaic in tone and content. Form isn't important, but tone is paramount. It should avoid replicating the commonplace poems that appear at funerals - 'Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep' and so on. Those poems, comforting though they can be, speak from the deceased to the living - Lonely Funeral poems speak from the living to the deceased. They celebrate a life rather than a death. They are unique.
What are your future hopes for the project?
We would ideally like to see the idea adopted across Scotland, and beyond. The project is not part of the architecture of local government - it is independent in spirit and execution (poets are not paid, though we may seek funds in future to offset travel expenses). Ultimately, this is a project that fosters compassion and humanity, and addresses issues of social isolation and the forgotten quarters of our society. Some people are hopelessly lost in the modern world and the Lonely Funeral poet attempts to find out what can be found out about them, and offer up a poem in their memory.
Will you still be posting your Otwituaries on Facebook?
Ha ha - yes. These are very different poems in that they elegise the well-known and late-lamented rather than the anonymous. They are drawn from a similar poetic DNA, however. I know they aren't everyone's cup of tea, but they do provide me with regular exercise in speed-writing and concision. If people like them it's a bonus - but now that I'm nearly 800 poems into the project it feels like too late to stop now! I hope to self-publish a small book of them soon, though you can see them here. Thanks for asking!
Here is the poem:
I step into the boxroom of your life,
tiptoe round the shrouded furniture,
shapeless islands on the exposed floor.
Who lived in this room, and what kind of light
fell through its window before the fixtures
and fittings of time could bear no more?
I cannot know, and yet am drawn to the walls,
sandwiched with paper and emulsion,
layer on layer, overlain with eggshell years.
I tug at a peeling edge and pull, and a small
corner tears away in my hand. I imagine
you with your brush and bright paint, here
in the midst of what you were, applying
primer, undercoat, topcoat, glossing
and touching up, each coat a moment
preserved: maybe damage you were trying
to make good, or faith in the face of closing
doors, working the quiet job with devotion.
Here are the patterns of a family, of love
built up but somehow broken. Below
is the lining paper of a childhood, too dark
to be a colour. Below that, I cannot look,
and so I will put away my pen and go
from this room, empty now as a stilled heart.
Let these words know a painter’s touch,
and their simple strokes be just enough
to show the world the keenness of your brush.