It’s Good Friday. Outside, it is mild and bright, a rare April jewel. I’ve seen many Good Fridays: some sunny, searingly hot; some so muggy it’s like walking through the womb. Some cold, dreary, gray, rainy; at times, there was even snow. As a kid, I felt special—I could take an extra Friday off scot-free thanks to the Orthodox calendar. My aunt Dorothy would take us to decorate the Epitafio, our small church extra holy in the hush. My siblings and I hid upstairs in the stuffy choir loft, watching a dozen women affix hundreds of carnations onto the intricately carved wooden tomb. By the time they were finished, their practiced hands smelling acridly of unripe green stems, it would be transformed into a stately, blooming, almost living and breathing thing. So unlike any coffin I had ever seen.
Vivid memories: the beauty of the light streaming in from the stained glass, anointing the women as they steadily and quietly worked, is forever muddied with acute corporeal ravenousness. Towards the tail end of Holy Week, we kids resorted to eating only stale bread, so severe were the dietary restrictions. I don’t observe those constraints any more, and while I trust my reasons, I still experience a gnawing, empty sort of guilt. I’ll never be rid of it—it’s in my blood now, but I don’t mind, in fact I welcome that twinge of dissatisfaction with myself. It’s a tie to something, to ritual, or the perverse pleasure of a mildly melancholy day.
Tonight the strong young men of the congregation will lift the Epitafio, its weight straining their solid shoulders, and head outside in a grand imitation of a funeral procession. The grand imitation of the funeral procession. Songs of lamentation, minor-key-eerie, the high pitch of old women keening, reedy with appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice, the rhythm of the walk, the scent of an early spring night: it ferments into a very specific, potent atmosphere, one I’ve been trying to process for two decades.
This year the Easters are on the same day. The ritual of the mysterious and the mysterious ritual. At my grandmother’s funeral, I stood amongst the mourners, my own complicated grief flowing, thinking: this is not for the deceased. This display is for those still living.