Dignity after death
Alex and Huw Anderson are BMS World Mission workers in southern Italy. Here they share the story of trying to find their friend’s body after he had died and was about to be buried without their attendance or prayers.
This story is about the death of a friend but, looking back, it is actually comical in places. It took place when one of the senior members of the Syracuse Baptist churches, Piero, died unexpectedly after a mild heart attack. He had only just been baptised some months before and his death took us all by surprise.
He had been one of Italy’s economic migrants in his younger days and had spent a large part of his life in the United States working as a manual labourer. On his return to Sicily, penniless and in his 60s, he decided to make a commitment to the Lord and, after concluding our first Alpha course, he was baptised.
No money for a funeral
On the morning after his death, we received a phone call from his estranged brother in Turin to give us the bad news. We drove down to the hospital in the company of two other church members expecting to be allowed to see the body and arrange an evangelical funeral for him.
As Piero had no money he had been unable to pay for a private funeral so his body had been handed over to the local council authorities for a pauper’s burial. Two staff nurses refused to disclose any information to us as we were not ‘family’. We went downstairs to the chapel and the morgue only to be told that the council funeral car had just left for the cemetery with Piero’s body on board and that he would be buried immediately on arrival at the graveyard.
Racing a hearse!
The Italian authorities don’t like to hang around and the hospitals want to be rid of the bodies as quickly as possible. We jumped into the car and raced to the cemetery at full speed. Catching sight of the council hearse at a junction we took a crafty short cut and managed to arrive minutes before the coffin. It is the first time we have ever raced a hearse!
We got to the cemetery and begged to be seen by the chief sexton who reluctantly allowed us to carry out a mini-funeral ceremony on the condition that it didn’t take longer than ten minutes and that we did not object to the mechanical digger carrying on excavating the hole in the ground.
What a contrast
We got permission and ran to where the open coffins are kept before they go into the ground. We ha
d to identify our friend (this was the first time I had ever seen death at first hand), so we had to go into the cold room where there was another body – that of an old lady laying in her best attire. What a contrast! Our poor friend was in the plainest, plywood box with just a black cross drawn on the lid with a marker pen.
The old lady by contrast was in a beautiful, shiny, oak box with gleaming brass handle
with a huge amount of mourners all wailing and shrieking. After saying our goodbyes to Piero, the coffin was closed and we accompanied him to the gra
veside where the digger was busily clawing away at the soft earth.
To the sound of the digger’s engine and women weeping for the other dead person, we all said prayers and gave thanks for Piero’s life, in full view of the other mourners.
We finished the short but very moving service with a rousing rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ as the grave was filled in. Later we all clubbed together to buy Piero a simple engraved tombstone and some flowers.