The beautiful thing that happens in Amsterdam if you die and have no one to attend your funeral
Funerals can be many things—a sombre mourning, a celebration of life, a time for family to honor a loved one—but one thing they should never be is unattended.
But the reality is that some people simply don’t have people. Maybe they’re estranged from their family and have outlived all their friends. Maybe they fell into a life of drug addiction and lost all of their close connections. Maybe no next of kin can be found or they just happen to die in a life stage when they have no one around to attend their funeral. Whatever the reason, some people’s send-offs from earthly existence are purely legal affairs with no personal touches whatsoever.
Two decades ago, some poets in the Netherlands decided that was an unacceptable ending for a human life. In 2001, a poet named Bart Droog began attending the funerals of people who had no one to attend them and honoring the dead with a poem based on whatever was known about their life. A year later, Dutch poet and artist Frank Starik took the idea even further, launching The Lonely Funeral project to ensure that someone who cares consciously acknowledges the life of a person who has died.
The idea was to create a network of poets who would find out whatever they could about the person, write a custom poem about their life and read it at their funeral. As of 2018, over 300 “lonely funerals” had been attended by poets in Amsterdam and Antwerp (where Flemish poet Maarten Inghels launched a Lonely Funeral project seven years after Starik’s).
The Lonely Funeral project has continued to expand to other countries as well. Scottish poet Andy Jackson has begun writing poems for “lonely funerals” and attending them in his hometown of Dundee and he hopes to expand the project to the rest of Scotland.
“I feel everybody deserves something humane at the end of life” he told the BBC. “Nobody should be completely unmourned. If we want to live in humane country these are little things we can do for people. It becomes the job of the community.”
A natural question is how the poets know what to write if the person was all alone.
“They would have a passport, some details from the police or from social services, a photograph or some information about their life maybe,” Jackson explained to the BBC. “Something that would give away something of who they were that a poet then could use to form the basis of a piece of work that would actually celebrate the real person—not somebody you couldn’t identify.”
Starik and Inghels have even published a book, The Lonely Funeral: Poets at the Gravesides of the Forgotten, which includes poems for 31 forgotten lives and descriptions of their funerals—a small piece of dignity offered to perfect strangers.
There’s perhaps nothing more beautiful than the impulse to recognize someone simply for the sake of their humanity. It’s a reminder that we are all connected in some way, even if it’s just by the reality of life and death.
As Starik wrote in his preface to The Lonely Funeral: “We do not know to whom we say goodbye, so we feel no pain. But everyone—and this is the point—every person deserves respect.”
Leave it to the poets to remind us of the inherent worth of every human being and to honor it with such a simple, selfless service.
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