Early on in my writing of what became DAUGHTERS OF SILENCE, long before I developed the confidence to flat out tell people that I was working on a novel, I used to call up funeral homes under the guise of being a potential customer and ask them detailed questions about exhumations and body repatriations.
This was when the plot of the manuscript was mostly about a bereaved family returning the remains of a loved one from Canada to Ethiopia, or trying to. Until I had an actual published book to show for myself, I didn’t feel that I could go around openly asking busy people to answer research questions for a mere computer file that may or may not become a book someday.
I’ve forgotten which funeral homes I called (meaning, I can’t be bothered to dig through my old notes now), except one, which I clearly remember because it’s the only one where I went in person. (The place has since closed. That location is now an animal hospital, with bees.) I went in there because I’d passed it by a million times, on account of a favourite bookstore being down the block, and a favourite park across the street.
So one day I finally worked up the courage to go in. The funeral director, after whom the one in DAUGHTERS OF SILENCE is partially named (and whom I forgot to add in my Acknowledgements page, apologies Mr. S! Let this post be my thank you for your unwitting involvement in my writing process), was very friendly and informative. I remember I was so nervous I wouldn’t even sit down in his office so we talked in the lobby. I pretended to be asking questions on behalf of an Ethiopian family that had recently lost someone and wanted to take them to Ethiopia for burial. The complication was that they were already buried in Toronto.
Of the many interesting details Mr. S. told me about the process of exhuming and returning a body overseas, one that struck me the most was that repatriation of remains to the home country is not an issue just at the time of an immigrant family’s bereavement, but rather it can be a long-held dream of the bereaved families. They may want to return the remains to the home country at the time of death, but are unable to for political reasons, in cases of war, complicated border situations, or flat-out unavailability of flights as a result. Mr. S. was familiar with this issue within the habesha community. In such cases, the burial is considered temporary. The family will return the remains when conditions become favourable, when peace returns, even if that is decades later. He had worked with families who had done just this, of late mostly to Eritrea.
I stopped just short of asking him for their contact information.
Fast forward several years, to last summer. I have landed a publisher, and I was waiting on the first set of notes from my editor. A friend tells me that while she was attending a funeral recently in a cemetery in northern Toronto, she saw some graves with Ethiopian writing. Right away my interest is piqued. I want to see them. The fact that she saw multiple such graves, that they may be in foreign soil but they had each other at least, unlike my mother’s solo habesha grave in a European cemetery, was what pulled me.
So, on a very hot July day, I rode the subway the farthest north I’d gone in years, in search of a stranger’s fresh grave, so I could see for myself the habesha ones around it. Thankfully the cemetery was within minutes of a subway stop. I wandered in with no clue where that stranger’s grave was, hoping to just stumble upon it. Because it’d been only weeks since the funeral, I knew it would be just a mound of earth, most likely with a cross in it. The individual was a Jamaican of Ethiopian Orthodox faith. That had been why his family was so happy, on his behalf, that in his time of rest, he would be surrounded by habesha people.
I wandered through the vast cemetery for almost an hour, under the scorching midday sun, looking no doubt very suspicious to the attendees of the few funerals that were being held, even though I tried to walk a wide circle around them. This was not one of those cemeteries that practically doubles as a public park. It’s out of the way. No one lingers. If they do, it’s in one spot. To look at me, you’d think I had dropped something, many somethings, all over the place.
Finally, tired, thirsty, and exhausted, I headed towards a building which I hoped was some type of an office, because I was too tired to head back to the entrance where I knew for sure there was a main office. Alas, it was the mausoleum building, and locked. So I finally gave in and called the cemetery’s main office from my phone, and asked where is the Orthodox section. They’re scattered all over, I was told, there’s no specific Orthodox section. I gave them the date of the funeral and the last name of the deceased, giving the impression that I missed the funeral and was paying belated respects (I think I might have an alternate career option as a spy or private detective!) After a bit of searching, they told me the exact row and lot number of the grave.
I was too tired to walk past even one lot to see if I was heading in the right direction, so I intercepted a groundskeeper passing in his little groundskeeping golf cart and asked the way. He told me and, would you believe it, drove away! No offer of a ride, when it was the one time I’d have happily gotten in a stranger’s vehicle.
Finally, I found the plot, a mound of earth as I expected, but no cross. I stood over it and said abaatachin hoy under my breath. I didn’t know the person but it seemed the polite thing to do. Then I looked around for what I was really there for. I found one habesha grave with a flat tombstone, in the opposite row, and another a few spots over. That’s it?? My disappointment felt weird even to me, but that didn’t make it go away. I wanted more. More…company, for that stranger.
So of course I wandered in the vicinity, willing there to be more of them, together in death. Sure enough, there were! In the next lot, several rows, almost exclusively habesha, almost every single one with a flag stuck into them, mostly Eritrean flags. A bit far from the stranger, I thought, and maybe only temporary, but yes, good neighbours just the same.
Then, I went in search of my own rest.