In response to the increased mortality caused by the pandemic, Dutch poets have started writing and reading poetry tributes at the memorials of lonely family members.
Once a deceased individual is identified, the society collectively researches facts about the individual’s life, then assigns a member to write a short piece uniquely tailored to the life of the individual. Gaining widespread acclaim since its inception, part of its success has been credited to the tributes serving an important role in the grieving process of a predominantly secular society. (Two-thirds of Dutch citizens identify as non-religious.)
The brainchild of Bart FM Droog, the city poet for Groningen, the lonely funeral poem movement initially began as a few poets seeing the bereavement in their community and wanting to do something to support their fellow countrymen. As the movement garnered more news coverage, it has since spread to almost all parts of the country including the large urban areas such as Brussels.
In Amsterdam alone, there have been more than 210 such poems written. These poems celebrate the lives of the homeless, forgotten, and elderly seeking to add dignity to their lives as valuable members of the community.
Despite the fact the state many times provides funding for funerals, Droog hopes that the growing awareness of lonely funerals might remind society that many times these individuals are the same people who fall through the cracks and the society lets down. Several persons who have received poems have included anonymous persons found left in derelict homes and/or found near canals.
One such instance called a society poet to remark the following in a poem:
without papers, without identity. What were you looking for?
How much did you lose along the way?
Noted poet Hester Knibbe reflecting on the task of returning dignity to the life of the deceased said, “How do you write a poem about someone you don’t know anything about…? It’s like a word that just won’t come: you describe, you try to imagine a basic life, trying to force it into some highs and lows.”
Another poet Menno Wigman, the 2016 winner of the Ger Fritz Prize writes in a lonely funeral poem:
And when the house is finished death arrives.
Those words, read long ago god knows where,
once haunted my thoughts for days,
I had moved, kept painting,
the work completed, death stayed away.
You too moved into a brand-new house.
The floors, people said, you left bare.
The walls remained unstripped.
Only the bedroom was used.
There you withdrew further into yourself.
The house remained unfinished. Even so the end came.
You were a human being. Lived unimpeded.
Who could have painted your walls?
Who could have given you words, warmth, light?
Thinly veiled shame. This stripped poem.
(This is an unofficial translation by Inga Buyse, used with permission of The Lonely Funeral Foundation.)
The work of the poets has recently been recognized and even been commented on by government officials noting the role they play in helping members of society grieve.