It was a cold day in early January and the graveyard was a most uninviting place to be. Tall, leafless trees, silhouetted against the grey sky, swayed in the biting, cold breeze. People around the grave huddled close like windswept penguins, chins stuck into their coats and scarves. In the distance a bell peeled as yet another funeral procession began its short, sad journey. ‘For whom the bell tolls’, my uncle said before stamping his feet on the rock hard ground.
I was standing in Mount Jerome cemetery with the rest of my family, as the gravediggers lowered my grandaunt’s coffin onto two muck-covered, broad beams that were set across the grave. The clunk of wood on wood made an eerie sound and people stiffened in response. A few seagulls swooped and cawed, adding to the gloomy air. Only the gravediggers spoke as they pulled and pushed the light-coloured coffin into place. After a few hefty tugs their work was done and they stepped aside, their boots scrunching noisily on the pebbled path.
The priest, dressed all in black, carefully made his way to the side of the grave. I could see the fresh muck on his clean shoes and the wind whipping at his trousers. He said a few words about my grand-aunt and about her long and happy life. She had in fact celebrated her ninety-eight birthday only a few months beforehand, making her by far the longest living member of the family. He then began to say a decade of the rosary and we joined in, happy that the silence was broken. As we prayed I could see, off to our right, the slow progress of another funeral; its mourners following in respectful silence, heads bowed in contemplation and against the cold.
My grand-aunt was being buried in my grandmother’s grave and I, for one, had never been to the place before. All around the graves were overgrown and unattended; most of them had not been opened for over thirty years. It was an old part of the cemetery and obviously very few people visited it. ‘Out of sight…’ I thought and heard my mother say to my uncle ‘It’s different, isn’t it?’
He turned his head slowly and sniffed the air. ‘Yeah, it’s been a long since I’ve been here.’ He paused, a slightly quizzical look on his face. ‘But I thought that the grave was nearer a big tree, not as close to the path as this is.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s been a long though, and my old memory isn’t as good as it once was.’
As soon as those words had left his mouth we all turned to see a woman walking quickly along the path to where we were gathered. Behind her the funeral procession had stopped and all the mourners were looking in our direction.
The priest stepped forward to meet her, as we waited in silence. The head gravedigger moved closer, keen to find out what was happening. It was a moment nobody will ever forget.
‘You’ve got the wrong grave’ the woman said, her voice almost breaking. She took a few deep breaths. ‘There’s been a terrible mistake. This is my father’s grave. I checked it last week with the cemetery superintendent. Something’s gone very wrong.’ She started to cry and the priest gently put his hand on her shoulder.
‘What’s your father’s surname’, asked the head gravedigger quietly. She told him and he said he would have to check the details back in the office. He ran off down the path as everyone stood around the grave, my grand-aunt waiting and somewhat forgotten in the commotion. And there she stayed, lost somewhere between heaven and earth, for another five or so minutes before we heard the gravedigger’s boots scrunching along the gravel path.
There was tension in the air and even the wind stopped as if it wanted to listen to what he had to say.
‘Yes, there has been a most unfortunate mistake. I’ve checked the register and this lady’s grave number is K492, and your father’s is K429. It’s a simple mistake for which I am terribly sorry.’ He looked at my grandaunt’s coffin and slowly shook his head. ‘This woman is indeed, well almost, in your father’s grave and it’s only by a real stroke of luck that both funerals arrived at the same time. Otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.’ He shrugged with nothing more to add. The chance that the two graves were opened on the same day, and that the two funerals arrived at almost the same time was, dare I say, miraculous even. ‘The other grave is ready for this ‘lady-in-waiting’, so we will take care of things now. My most sincere apologies to you all.’
I had to grin at his words, and wondered how often does this sort of thing happened. I didn’t want to know.
‘Thank you, thank you so much’ the woman said, wiping tears away.
So, about twenty minutes later, the priest led the prayers for a second time, and we finally laid my grand-aunt to rest.
‘She always wanted to be remembered,’ my uncle said ‘and after today, well….’ He winked, and we headed down the path, past broken headstones and the church where the bell was again tolling.