THE FUNERAL - Maureen M Smith ©

There is a yawning hole in the red dirt, a coffin sized hole, waiting to take unto itself the earthly remains of one of its people. A crowd of waiting people gather under a vast blue dome sky, air temperature 24 degrees and a zephyr ruffles our hair, just enough to keep the flies away, or some of them. Before us standing tall and majestic, the escarpment. The rays of sun play upon it giving it life. It is eternal, been there before humans came to this place, this sacred place where the body of a woman so precious to many will lie.

We travelled for twelve hours by train, plane and car to be at this place, to say our farewell to a special woman, we'll call her E. We were conscious of our whiteness among so many black faces. The only person we knew was E's daughter Sadie, who we couldn't find, which left us feeling even more conspicuous. Three women came to greet us with outstretched hands and smiles, acknowledging who we were. We began to feel at ease. Joan told of her special connection with E and stories of their times together over the past 40 years. They replied with, 'That is a comfort to us, you are welcome.' It was a comfort to us as well to be so included.

We weren't sure what to expect, we had never attended the funeral of an Indigenous person of Central Australia. We did expect however, for there to be a large crowd as E was a respected and much-loved woman. Time had not enslaved this community and as we were told the funeral was to be at 10am, it was an hour later when people, many from distant communities, started arriving. Quietly and gently, without fuss, they gathered outside the church. Two clergymen, one white and one black, both dressed in white cassocks were to officiate.

The church building, a small three-sided small tin shed with a concrete floor had an altar at one end adorned with a cross and colourful plastic flowers. Benches lined two side walls; a large narrow table covered with a white cloth took up most of the space in the centre. We sat with others on the benches and chairs outside, facing the open church. The temperature was increasing, and we felt quite uncomfortable sitting with the midday sun streaming into our faces. No one else seemed to mind the heat and the small black flies. Maybe because we were old ladies, and the elderly are given respect in Aboriginal culture, or maybe because Joan was such a special friend of E's, we don't know, but we were summoned to sit inside the church, for which we were grateful.

The heart rending, guttural sounds of wailing voices of grief filled the air as six men carried the coffin into the church and placed it on the table. The elevated emotion was palpable. Relatives flocked to it placing their arms across the coffin. Their voices full of anguish and grief tore at our hearts. This outpouring of genuine grief was overwhelming.

Hymns were sung in both English and Arrernte as were the words from a Christian burial order of service, but the most significant words spoken came from E's family and friends as they told of their love for her and her many acts of kindness to others. After the final blessing, people again flocked to the coffin, draping themselves over it, crying. When it was time, the coffin was taken to the cemetery, just several hundred metres from the church.

As the coffin was lowered with straps into the earth, above the cries of grief, the voice of an elderly woman sang in a high-pitched melodious voice. It was an ethereal moment in time. Each person took a handful of red earth and let it fall over the coffin. We all turned from that place, sad but uplifted, knowing we had been part of something deeply moving and sacred.

Maureen M Smith ©