It takes an hour to get there. One bus, two different subway trains, one street tram: I try never to make so many connections but the cemetery is as far away from the city center as you can get without entering the countryside. I can see why Vienna’s Zentral Friedhof is a tourist destination. It’s massive, it holds the graves of loads of famous folks, the Jugenstil cathedral is divine. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve visited the cemetery just to take pictures, wander around, act like a tourist, completely carefree.
Today the trip is made with intent. I can’t get over something I’ve heard my mom say every time she hears of a child dying: “A parent should never have to bury their child.” I agree.
The hall where the funeral is to be held is small, narrow, cold. The ceilings are high, the stone is hard, white. I sign my name, wishing that sick kids had not kept the rest of my family at home. And yet simultaneously grateful that the reminder of my abundance is not here.
The first thing I notice in the room is the tiny coffin. It sits on the large slab, out of place, tilted forward. The child’s face is shown in a large photograph situated in front of the spreads of flowers. It’s a small gathering, my first funeral outside of the United States. Everyone holds their roses with the head down. I wonder why. After I notice, I put the head of my pink rose down too.
I see my friend whose wife brought home baby number 2 yesterday from the hospital. He looks pale, shaky. He explained that their ‘oldest,’ 16 months old, threw up in his bed because he was so upset during the night. I offer to bring dinner,–a pebble in the pale offering–he smiles and accepts.
The bishop speaks first, his four month old making noises at the back. The father speaks next: I think he’s 25 years old. He describes his son to us in detail (none of us got to know the baby other than through the loving writing of his father on his blog because he spent the 6 1/2 weeks of his life in the ICU), tells us the story of how they got to hold him, how he got to breast-feed, of how grateful he was for the time they had to spend together. The mother speaks next.
I still can’t get over how calm this young couple is. They’re hopeful and and proud and distraught and sad. It’s upsetting knowing that they’ll go home to their apartment and very little will have changed except the knowledge that they have loved and lost everything. She talks about how much fun she had with her baby while he lived. She talks of the nurses who cared for him. She has a list of things she wants to tell us about him. She closes after saying that she’s sure she has forgotten something.
Two men gather the flowers, one man carries the coffin to the hearse. We walk behind the hearse past the cathedral, past a group of tourists being guided through the cemetery. We walk under dry, falling snow. If I were to take a picture right now, there would be a blue undertone to everything.
Those of us without fur coats are wishing we had them (no matter what our opinions on the matter of fur are). After a time, my friend remarks on my skirt. It looks like I’m one of the only people that wore one. He says I must be cold. And I am. But I’m grateful to be walking in a group, grateful to have a leader, grateful for my aching feet, grateful for my sick kids. Grateful for the warm hug I receive from the mother after I drop my shovel-full of dirt and my rose onto the tiny coffin that lies 12 feet below. We take a picture after all have said their goodbyes to the baby.
We try to make small talk. We try to suppress our tears. And then I, at the urging of one of the elderly sisters, turn around and walk towards the street tram. I offer her my arm, she’s freezing and her left leg is hurting her. The smiles of the sister missionaries greet us at the tram stop. When the tram arrives, we step into it and out of the cold. We find a few seats and bask in each other’s company until we say our goodbyes, disembarking at our destination.
From what sources have you found comfort as you’ve grieved? In what ways have people helped? And hurt? If you’ve also lost a child, will you consider sharing your story?