It’s August 28th. Our hired car with its temperamental air-conditioning is leaving the heat and bustle of Colombo, climbing slowly through the verdant hills towards Kandy, the place where I was born. We are going to the Mahaiyawa cemetery to mark the 21st-year anniversary of my mother’s death.
I have always had a bond with Sri Lanka, but now that my parents’ remains nestle in the island's soil, the connection has thickened.
My mother and father had worked and lived in the UK for more than 25 years. Although my father had been ill for some time, we never talked about where he might want to be buried. When he died, my mum made the decision to take his ashes to Colombo, to be interred in the grave of his parents. I never asked her why, and when she died, six months later, it seemed natural that she too would be laid to rest in Sri Lanka.
There is some bureaucracy to go through when you take ashes abroad - it is more complicated and costly to repatriate a dead body for burial, with legal requirements and procedures varying from country to country. I have not been able to find any statistics about these final journeys out of the UK, but with increasing transnational mobility, from holidays to war, this seems to be a growing phenomenon of our times. It is estimated that 5.5 million British people live permanently abroad – almost one in 10 of the UK population. According to the latest annual survey by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 6,193 British nationals died abroad and required consular assistance in the year 2012-13. There are whole industries based upon these last migrations, another hidden layer of the economic traffic that passes through the migrant's household.
There are cultural and religious reasons for wanting to die or to be laid to rest in a ‘home’ country, but there can be other interrelated compulsions. Ibrahim, a dying refugee from Ghana, wanted to be buried in Ghana so that his baby son would have some future connection to the country. He feared that without this posthumous umbilicus, his son’s Ghanaianness would ‘melt away’ in the UK. That Ibrahim's life had been endangered in Ghana and he could return only in death were poignant reminders of the extents of the schizophrenogenic fabric of 'home' for refugees.
For Morris, a Jamaican-born South Londoner, it was more visceral. I interviewed Morris in his small flat, in a high-rise tower block. He was dying from lung disease, which he suspects was caused by exposure to asbestos dust in his work as a builder. Morris told me that he wanted to be buried in Jamaica so that his spirit would be free to fly above the mango and apple trees, the rivers and the sea. As John Burnside writes in his beautiful poem 'Geese’
Home is nothing like the mind’s intended space
but how the flesh belongs.
Melanie, a white British hospital nurse, feels that she is never sure that she fully understands what is being conveyed in end-of-life plans and wishes. She wonders about a sub-text, entangled with racism. Melanie has some inkling that social differences and her professional authority as a nurse affect what some of her patients tell her. She recounts this story of a Jamaican patient who wanted to be buried in Jamaica,
…she [the patient] said ‘when I’m buried in the ground and my spirit comes up I want to see the sunshine and I want to see familiar people, people who know and love me’. She was wanting to not offend me, I think. She said ‘there’s nothing wrong with this country, but it’s not the same warmth’ and it wasn’t just the physical warmth of the sunshine.
These are themes that resonate throughout the creole ballad ‘Tropical death’ by Grace Nichols, a Guyanese-born British poet. The poem, from the collection ‘The Fat Black Woman’s Poems' is written as a dialogue between the narrator/poet and the protagonist - the Fat Black Woman - a figure whose bulk and substance does not allow for an uninvolved and disembodied reading.
In the heart
of her mother’s sweetbreast
In the shade
of the sun leaf’s cool bless
In the bloom
of her people’s bloodrest
the fat black woman want
a brilliant tropical death yes
Tropical Death begins with the stanza ‘The fat black woman want/a brilliant tropical death/not a cold sojourn/in some North Europe far/forlorn’. It is through this seemingly mundane talk about the weather that ambivalence emerges, caught between the heat and cold, with the renewed ‘brilliance’ of a tropical death shining exuberant against the present ‘cold sojourn’. In the last lines of the poem, a deeper past opens up through encounters between biographical and cultural memory, that in other poems in the collection recall the catastrophes of slavery, the Middle Passage and the plantation. These interweaving trails of suffering, loss and enforced silences are haunting, ruffling the surfaces of the present.
For some postcolonial writers and artists, death and the work of commemoration and mourning in diasporas, brings together different times, places and cultures, producing what Ramone Soto-Crespo thinks of as a hybrid grief. For people who have experienced violence in their ‘home’ countries, or for those who have been subject to racist violence, bereavement and commemorating the dead takes on added meaning and significance.
Most of us will be familiar with the story of Stephen Lawrence, who was stabbed to death in a racist attack in South-East London in 1993. What is less well known is that Stephen is buried in rural Jamaica.
In a television documentary, his mother, Doreen said that she had buried Stephen in the Caribbean, fearing that his grave, like the plaque that marks his place of death, would be desecrated. The UK did not deserve to have Stephen’s body, she said, adding 'I think it's still the best thing we did, that we brought him here so he can be next to his great-grandmother so she can look after him.'
If leaving a country in death signifies a refuge from social exclusion or racism as much as cultural tradition or the pull of home, what might such last journeys and burial places tell us about the experience and temporality of migration, multicultural living, pain, loss and belonging?
Of course I have been thinking about where I would like to finish up. It’s complicated because I want my son to have somewhere to go to, with relative ease, should he ever need a sensual focus or an otherworldly hug. I am broadly supportive of the current drive to get us all thinking and planning for death, but the Eurocentrism and the neoliberal logic of it all - with its fantasy of control and limited ideas about different religious sensibilities and varied meanings of ‘home’ - worries me. And then I often remember the comedian Bob Hope's quip to his wife Dolores when she asked him where he wanted to be buried. Hope is said to have replied 'Surprise me!'
Whatever my fantasies and leanings, other people will ultimately be making these last decisions. If they are people that I have loved, I wish them courage, wit and imagination, because our final places of rest are much more than monuments and a closing of the life-cycle. They are stories, enunciations, dreams, experiments and precarious missives that say something about our complicated lives and in some cases, our care and concern for those we leave behind.
Sanjay, a Gujarati Hindu, in the terminal stages of stomach cancer, had made a will and talked to his family about his death plans. He had chosen not to have his ashes taken back to India because he didn’t want the ‘pressures’ of ‘tradition’ for his family, particularly his elderly father. Sanjay asked for his ashes to be scattered in a local park where he walked each morning and where he had found 'so much positive energy and spirituality’. Such inventive and personalised rituals, based upon quotidian routines, found bodily connections and care for others are pioneering new grounds of belonging, extending selves and possibilities through the very ‘movement of bone, of body, of breath, of imagination, of muscle’.
The living always cohabitate with the dead Robert Pogue Harrison argues in his book The Dominion of the Dead that investigates what he calls the ‘humic foundations’ of everyday life. A humic foundation is one ‘whose contents have been buried so that they may be reclaimed in the future’ Harrison explains. ‘The humic holds in its conserving element the unfinished story of what has come to pass.’