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Sunday 26 October  

Classic Dox - The Lonely Funeral

On air: 27 July 2010 0:00 - 25 August 2010 0:00 (Photo: rnw.nl)

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Every year up to twenty people die completely alone in Amsterdam. There are no friends or family to prepare their funeral or mourn over the body. No one, that is, except a civil servant and a poet. 

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Michele Ernsting - The Lonely Funeral

Some die alone in their home, with nothing but their identity. The anonymous dead are illegal migrants, drug mules, or simply people who for one reason or another, cut off all social contacts. Some are elderly, some are infants.

For 20 years, retired Amsterdam civil servant Ger Frits has made sure that these lonely or unknown citizens get a respectful send-off. He visits their homes if they had one, and carefully chooses music to play at their funeral. He puts flowers on the coffin and accompanies each person to their final resting place.

“Farewell sir,  
without papers, without identity. What were you looking for?
How much did you lose along the way?” 

A few years ago, Amsterdam poet Frank Starik decided that these people also deserved to be eulogized. He contacted the Amsterdam city services and asked if he could take part in these forgotten funerals. Despite concerns over privacy, Ger Frits agreed.

Starik says that the poem is first and foremost for the deceased. He’s not a religious man, nor is Ger Frits. But he feels that the funeral is a moment of reckoning. “It’s your time at heaven’s gate, he says. “Someone needs to put in a good word for you.”

“Who then, loved you? In which rooms did you sleep,
who kissed you goodnight, who’ll wear out your shirt?
Who will want to stand where you once stood?
Who now takes the road you took?”

“People are story machines,” explains Starik. “We’re always busy making and re-making our stories. What the Lonely Funeral does is return stories to people who have somehow lost theirs along the way.”

Starting with their very first funeral together, Ger Frits and Frank Starik forged an unlikely friendship based on mutual respect for the lonely citizens of their city.

“Who still looks for you? Who remembers whence you came?
Who heard the voice calling out for you to come on home, man,
to your final haven, Amsterdam.” 

The Lonely Funeral was produced and presented by Michele Ernsting. It’s part of the international exchange series Global Perspective – At the Edge. The feature is a Finalist in the category Human Relations at the 2010 New York Festivals. 
 

Discussion

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Mlewsimpson 10 August 2011 - 8:10pm / USA

I loved this and wept almost uncontrollably. I was not sure exactly why. That these men cared enough to conduct a simple dignified ritual for these lost souls. That these men possessed voices that resonated with my deepest, albeit atheist, heart strings. Thank you for this touch of human kindness and compassion.

Cameron 1 February 2011 - 6:39pm / USA

A poignant and moving, yet haunting, documentary. Sound Print has aired it three times within the past nine months in the States. Ger Fritz and Frank Starik are to be commended for their compassion but it is a trifle odd that after going to all of that trouble that the deceased are not given at least grave markers.

Anonymous 28 September 2010 - 8:55pm

Beautiful documentary. Fantastic man Mr. Frits and poet Starink. Hearing this in a part of the world where nobody seems to care about the living, let alone the dead, is heartening.
Thanks RNW

RobinM 13 September 2010 - 10:20pm / USA

Yes, indeed. Thank you Radio Netherlands! I loved this story.

Anonymous 13 September 2010 - 5:07am / USA

Just listened to your program on WAMU 88.5/NPR. It's a heart-warming story. Thanks, Michele.

Anonymous 28 August 2010 - 3:06am / Lalaland

Anyone can stop a man's life, but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it.

jasmin 26 August 2010 - 12:04pm / India

The article has brought tears in my eyes. Anon from Canada, I couldn't have said it better. Thanks Mr. Frits for your compassion, though wish the dead could get this taste of compassion, when they were alive. Nothing worse than being old and lonely. I had one such patient-an old woman, some weeks back, and we both held hands with tears in our eyes as I listened to her fears..Thanks Michele

Michele 1 September 2010 - 8:57pm / Netherlands

You're welcome Jasmin, I'm glad you liked it.

Anonymous 26 August 2010 - 4:40am / Canada

I sometimes ponder how conforting it is to know that someone in our lives, a spouse, a friend, a family member, worries when we forget to call them or when we come home late at night. But the thought that no one would even mourn the day we die, that not a soul would know we’ve passed away, is unbearable. Nobody deserves this, no matter what.

On behalf of those forgotten souls, I say thank you, Mr. Frits, for acknowleding their presence among us and for seeing them off in dignity. And thank you, Radio Netherlands, for another wonderful documentary.

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