White, sheer fabric hangs on every wall, covering even the windows. Four silky blue sheets knotted in bows accent each corner. The air is thick with grief. I can hear women wailing from outside.
I shake off my shoes and follow my host, Eleni, into the stream of extended family members who walk towards the casket to pay their last respects, my eyes cast down out of respect.
We move forward slowly, shuffling. I gulp and find it hard to breathe, as if the air is just out of reach, as if we are moving through fluid. I am embalmed and bound and conscious only of each ragged step.
When we reach the far end of the room, Eleni drops to her knees and crosses herself. One of her aunts grabs the casket like it is the only object tethering us all to the ground. The women around us rock back and forth on crossed legs, tears flowing freely.
Eleni bends over and kisses her grandmother’s cheek. She dabs her red eyes with a lime-green handkerchief, turns around, and waves me forward.
It is my turn.
I follow Eleni’s example and fall to my knees, trying to distance myself from fear. This is the first time I have seen a dead body. I look down into the face of a woman I have not met. She is pale but serene. Tight curls of grey hair wind close to her skull. I wonder who washed her skin, who arranged her hair. Bits of cotton are stuffed in each nostril. Only her head is visible; someone has tucked in a length of white fabric just below her head, obscuring her body from the neck down. Is she wearing clothes beneath? Can she feel the heat of this day, this overstuffed room? I lose track of my breathing body for a moment, floating above.
“Kiss my mommy,” Eleni’s mother whispers from next to me, breaking the trance. She smiles through her tears, offering permission. It is a command, not a question. There are others in line behind me, jostling for a position to see their loved one. Not mine. She is theirs.
I make haste––lean over and place my lips on her forehead, gently. Something in the temperature of her skin brings me back into myself. Her face is clammy and cold, thawing after two days in the hospital mortuary. In hours she will be underground.
Eleni’s grandmother had twelve children, though I never learn her name. At a Fijian noontime mass we bless her body with song. I hum wordlessly along to the tune of the acoustic guitar.
As the mass adjourns, a group of holy men dressed in white wrap her casket in a woven mat laced with wool and carry her body towards the sea. The whole tide of us follow in procession, singing and kicking stones on the path, to a plot of land dotted with graves at the crest of a small hill. A fresh, deep hole marks the earth. We gather there.
The pastor blesses her body anew as many men lower her into the ground. Those closest toss in handfuls of dirt. Then others with shovels take over, hauling the soil over their shoulders in big, muscular heaves. One man in rubber boots hops into the grave to stamp his feet on top of the freshly turned, reddish earth, compressing. The ground is damp from five days of rain, but it is sunny now, blissfully. I close my eyes and breathe in the not-so-distant saltiness of the Pacific.
When the level of soil on top of her casket reaches that of the ground surrounding it, a second wave of men haul in a pile of stones and set about building a rectangular rock wall around the new grave, about two feet tall. Dirt fills this new emptiness.
In a third wave, three men appear with bags full of coral, the color bleached out. They pour the coral on top of the raised bed––the sound of coral on coral is as glass breaking. A thousand thousand glasses.
Eleni’s mother drapes a piece of fabric on top of the coral. Her sisters come to thread fabric streamers around the four tree-branch stakes that mark each corner of the grave.
Eleni hands her four-year-old son a wreath of purple leaves with green undersides that she gathered from her village last night before sunset. “Purple is for mourning,” she tells me in a soft voice, her eyes still red. Her son leaps over to join the other children who place wreath after wreath of flowers on top of it all.
The result looks to me like a ship, though I am sure that as a foreigner and a guest, so much of the resonance of this event is lost to me. I only know that I kissed her, that I wish her well––this woman now passed who I never will meet. Death is everywhere, an extension of life. It is all I can do to be present and offer my love.