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Let my picture wander with your hat: a bitter tale of settlement.


Upon the shocking death of my beloved brother and in the months following the loss, my family and I confronted extra dimensions involved in coping with death in a host country. Consumed by the grief and captured in the web of bureaucratic frustrations, legal confusions, and socio-cultural unfamiliarity, I found my experience of dealing with the aftermath of death to be a bitter reflection of living in a country where I had not grow up.

Some people say that "burying a family member in the host country is the last stage of settlement." Being a romantic at heart, I used to think the saying referred to the concept of cultivating yet another root in the host country: entrusting the land with a non-removable piece of your life, thus growing even more attached to it. The experience of the recent passing and burial of my beloved brother proved my previous assumption quite wrong.

The ordeal had far more practical aspects than I had ever imagined. In other words, when you lose and bury a family member, there are some facts of life--or rather of death--that you learn for the first time, irrespective of how long you have lived in the host country. And you learn these facts in the most bitter of ways, when you are the least prepared to want to learn, let alone grapple with and find solutions. For example, you learn about mundane matters like the fact that a grave cannot be dug and prepared at short notice because the land is frozen in February when you happen to have lost your brother. Or lessons with legal consequences, like the fact that when you lose somebody, you automatically become a "successor;" and unless you "renounce" the succession in a timely manner by going through certain procedures, you will become the legal heir and thereby liable for the deceased's debts, or not liable for his debts, depending on the information source you consult!

When losing someone to death, you are also reminded of some aspects of the society and the culture that you hoped would have not applied to death and burial, aspects such as salesmanship, relentless bureaucracy, contradictory information, and the deliberately ambiguous "cultural language" you seem never to master.

From the moment we were hit by the shock of losing my brother all the way through believing in and grieving his absence, coming to terms with the loss, and then starting to miss him, there were some indescribable moments of uncertainty and, at the same time, a dependency on the unfamiliarity of the processes and the authorities that rendered us powerless beyond what the death itself does.

The experience was similar to the situation when you are a newly arrived person in the host country and have a seriously ill child who is hospitalized. You are dependent on the unfamiliar institution to the last shred of your being, even though you do not quite understand what the doctors and staff mean when they use obscure words and double entendres. You get frustrated and annoyed, yet you feel too vulnerable and too dependent on their service to demand what you need to know about what has to be done. This happens only in a host country, I suppose, or perhaps in your native country only when you are treated as an unwanted citizen by the uninvited intruders.

Here is my dark tale, brightened only by instances of respect and abundant love ...

My brother took his own life at a fairly young age (mid 40s) but based on his long-held philosophical belief and with much contemplation and serenity--or so I wish to believe.

This, I admit, upset the balance fight from the outset: first with the intervention of paramedics, police, and the coroner physician in his apartment, and later on with handling the lingering taboo associated with suicide.

Often throughout the ceremonies and conversations, I caught myself explaining, albeit reluctantly, that he did not do this out of desperation, weakness, or even depression. That he was a free spirit, a want-less and unique soul with an enormous love for life and everything living ... But in a society driven by and obsessed with youth, physical beauty, and life, what are the chances of successfully communicating with people the fact that somebody could indeed choose to die merely because he felt he had lived long and happily enough? What are the chances of conveying the respect you have toward his decision without appearing to belonging to a suicide cult of some sort? Not much, I know!

Some people assumed he had been suffering an unbearable pain. So they would try to comfort us by saying, "That's alright, he is at peace now." Well, I, for one, did not think of him as in any state of being right then--be it peace or war. But I had to press the pause button on the flow of my emotions and explain that I was crying not for him but for the empty space he had left behind and for my own state of loneliness. Then a well-intentioned, distanced smile would interrupt to wrap up the conversation. Eventually, we dropped the whole task of explaining and concentrated on more urgent issues, deep down being grateful that at least suicide is not considered a crime in Canada as it is in many countries.

Before the solemn yet relatively relaxed conditions wherein we communicated with friends and relatives the philosophy behind the suicide, we had to deal with the burden of sharing it with the officials. The first sense of uncertainty combined with dependency and powerlessness came when paramedics took my brother away, five hours after they had first arrived: "where?" "some morgue" "which?" "don't know" "what to do next?" "will call us" "when?" "soon."

Gone was his soul. Gone was his body.

Then came the second thought: what about his body in the hands of unidentified officials? Will they do an autopsy? Of course, everyone is supposed to know that when an unusual death occurs, the physicians can order an autopsy--with or without the family's permission. We did not know that then. And we kept not knowing later on where to go to find out if they were going to do an autopsy on him, what it entails, etc. We just suppressed our anxiety, pretending this was of little consequence until we found out, forty-eight hours later from the funeral home, that no autopsy was performed after all--the news was a petty relief!

The morning following the death of my brother, when we were still clueless about his whereabouts, our family of eight siblings and spouses were divided into small groups and went about making the necessary arrangements. By that evening, we had signed a contract with a funeral home; owing to its forbidding fees, it would take care of a host of other arrangements, including those with the morgue. By the same evening, we had also decided that he would be buried and not cremated and thus we had bought a piece of land in a cemetery which I will call a "park"; we had decided he would not be embalmed; we selected the casket; we picked the timing of the viewing, the funeral service and the memorial; and needless to say, already added remarkably to our repertoire of English terms.

We all agreed that having your much-loved departed brother dressed in his best, in a casket decorated with flowers, in a nice private room, and then having his friends and family paying their last respects in a deeply sad and respectful mood was indeed very dignified and true to my brother's personality. Similarly dignified and moving was the manner of carrying the casket to his last "resting place," as it is called, accompanied by many sympathetic faces who took the trouble to see us back home, gathering for a few minutes to chat over a cup of tea, to console, and to cherish memories.

I remember vividly that each time I used to attend a funeral service back home, I would dread thinking that I would die some day! Thinking I would be stripped naked and washed in a huge, semi-public morgue, with relatives wailing their heads off. Then I would be wrapped in a few meters of prayer-written robe before being put on a stretcher carried on the top of tens of shoulders rushing me, with much turbulence, toward the grave site, finally placing me down there in the midst of the now roaring wails and screams.

In Canada, of course we have the choice of being buried the same way we would at home--we even have the choice of being buried at all. In our home country, however, we have no choice at all! I personally think that it is worth living in the host country, if only for the sake of dying here, too.

That being said, I still cannot figure out why the "park" manager, also dressed in his best while putting on his professional sad face and accompanying us along with his female partner, kept instructing us--at the top of his voice--that we "must step back immediately, and keep your distance" once the casket is lowered and the truck starts filling in the grave with soil so that no one would be injured. What is the likelihood of such an accident anyway? And what is the need for such instructions? The same gentleman failed to inform us that there was a big bowl of earth installed beside the gravesite for family members and friends to throw the first few handful of soil into the grave--a symbolic gesture of intimacy--before the truck roars in to unload the soil on the casket. The park manager certainly thought we did not know we should get out of the truck's way; and he certainly thought we did know about the tradition. We did not know, then. We only found out when it was too late--just a petty shame.

The second wave of uncertainty, frustration, and powerlessness came about a week later, when we had managed to pull ourselves together enough to start thinking about what to do on my brother's behalf--i.e., what to do with his bills and belongings. We started, or thought we did, by packing his furniture in order to vacate the apartment for the owner. "Hold on," warned the second-generation lawyer nephew. "Taking possession of his belongings means that you have accepted his succession and you probably don't want to do that if he has lots of debts because then you would also be liable for those debts. Consult a notary or something first!" he suggested. That started two full months of inquiries, research, information, dilemma, misinformation, confusion, and bureaucracy, a snapshot of which follows ...

My brother had little in the way of "an estate"--only an apartment full of his photography related equipment, computers, camping equipment, mechanical tools, books, and everything else essential for his humble lifestyle, plus a van. He did have some debts and loans which exceeded his belongings, though not to a forbidding degree.

With this backdrop, the family held its first few hours-long workshop, headed by my not-so-patient lawyer nephew. He explained the difference between being a successor/heir--who accepts or refuses the estate--and the liquidator or executor, who is assigned to take care of everything else. "What things?" "Things like doing the will search, putting notices in papers for potential creditors, informing the bank, the phone company, etc., of his passing, filling in his taxes, and most importantly, selling his stuff and paying off his debts." That role, we were told, could be played by a professional liquidator or by one or all of us.

Once grounded in the reality of these issues, we asked another family-friend lawyer for a second expert opinion. She confirmed the above and advised we were better off renouncing both the succession and being liquidator so as to avoid unnecessary involvement--emotional and otherwise. However, to do that we first had to request a "Death Certificate"--not to be mistaken with the "Declaration of Death" that we already had. Doing so would take two weeks and some fees. With the certificate in hand, we then had to do a will search--again, not to be mistaken with a physical search for his hand-written will, but a notary-operated procedure that would take another couple of weeks and certain fees. With the above two documents, we could then go to a notary and do the official renunciation--a web of new terms and concepts.

It sounded confusing that we had to undertake some of the liquidator's jobs in order to be exempted from being a liquidator. A more urgent, unanswered question was what we should do with the furniture so that we could release the apartment for the owner without appearing to have possessed it. We absolutely could not pay the rent; If we did, we would have, in effect, accepted the succession and therefore the debt and the rest of it ... The second lawyer suggested we rent a space to temporarily store his belongings. She did not really know what would come next.

We soon learned that the Curateur publique (Public Curator), a body of the Government of Quebec, is in fact what would come next. This is the department that manages "unclaimed properties." To put it simply, it acts as the liquidator and successor. Before going ahead with the storage idea, I called in the Public Curator and was warned: "If you are going to renounce, you must not touch anything at all!" How could we not touch anything and still prepare all the necessary documents? And how could we not touch anything and at the same time vacate? "The owner has the right to take action and vacate the apartment with the presence of two witnesses," responded the Public Curator, "and later ask us for her delayed rents if she wishes." The thought of the old and extremely amiable landlady having to deal with the curator and having to find help to throw my brother's belongings away was just as disturbing as imagining his belongings being thrown out.

Being a researcher by profession, I carried on with the research and consulted a Government of Quebec website that offered a booklet dealing precisely with the situation at hand: "What to Do in the Event of Death." To my surprise and confusion, this source unveiled a completely different scenario. We would not be responsible for my brother's debts, to start with. Under the "succession" section, the article read:
 The heirs are liable for the deceased's debt up to the value of the
 property they inherit ... Generally, a succession is renounced if
 it has more debts than assets. However (emphasize mine) it is
 important to note that the heirs--i.e., the successors who accept
 the succession-are only responsible for paying the deceased's debts
 up to the value of the property they receive. (2005, 19-20)

Our new dilemma now was, should we renounce and deal with the Public Curator at all if we are not financially liable? There came our last source of information, a notary highly recommended as "knowing the business inside out." The old, chubby, affluent-looking notary did not bother even pretending the "case" was anything but business to him. Charging us dearly per hour, he took his time telling side-stories and detailing irrelevant issues. However, coming to our precise points and questions, he had only one important statement to make; We must absolutely renounce everything, although "it would cost you a few dollars," adding he had never heard of what I was quoting from the government's site. He whispered wisely "I am dealing with practical things everyday. I don't care what they say; I know how things work!" Well, we eventually did go with his advice and renounced, not knowing to this day which source was accurate.

The supposedly knowledgeable notary almost dismissed all the rest of our concerns and questions on intervening with the furniture, apartment, landlady, and car, as he thought the whole list of my brother's belongings (which I had prepared at his request) was too negligible even for the government to possess and sell, thus it would not matter one way or the other. On the subject of our responsibilities toward the creditors, he explained: "They might call you up, harass you, threaten you (I had some idea of what he was saying), but if you renounce, there is absolutely nothing they can do."

At some point near the end of the first session, he asked how my brother had died and, upon hearing how, with a dismissive shrug and raising his eyebrows in pity, he uttered, "no wonder!" I was writhing to tell him that my brother possessed and generously gave away the kind of possession that the notary could never have achieved or imagined, even in a few lifetimes. But of course, I did not say anything and I deeply despised myself for shaking his hand when leaving his office.

We finally set the goal to rent a storage space, make a list of my brother's belongings, and pay a mover to take them to the storage space until we received the papers, then to go to the Public Curator, submit the documents and the keys to the storage space and the van, and ask them to take over. Would they have objections to the way we did things? Would they question us if he had anything else in his apartment? Would they give us back the "negligibly valued" furniture as the notary had suggested? We would see ...

So came the farewell to the familiar sounds and smells and objects as we populated the already deserted apartment: canned goods and other food had to go to the food bank; junk had to be thrown out; extra clothes and books, all liquid stuff, etc., had to go to the Salvation Army, and the rest to the labeled boxes heading to storage. In two days of constant labour, all boxes traveled to different directions and to their final--or temporary--destinations. Then, nothing else was to be done except to wait for the papers to arrive.

One of those nights, my brother came to me in my dream asking for his hat! "Where is my white summer hat?" he asked, slightly distressed. I knew which one he was referring to, but I could not remember if I had put it in one of the boxes going to the Salvation Army or in another headed for storage, or perhaps it was among the few treasured personal items I had taken to hang in my own closet. I felt terrible in the dream about having lost his hat, and when awake, about having dispatched his belongings.

From then on, I kept singing in my head a rap verse I had composed spontaneously: "Let my picture wander with your hat!" That was the portrait of me that he had taken and hung in his home office for years, the one I felt compelled and comforted to pack with his stationery and send off to no-where land. Yes, "let my picture wander with your hat"--at least!

Finally, I went to the Public Curator's office and took along with me all the documents, keys, and the renunciation paper. Everything went smoothly; They took all I had to submit and took over. On my request, they created an urgent file and sent in an investigator the next business day to fill in the gaps in information. The investigator said they would dispatch the furniture the same week and arrange for my brother's van to be picked up the same day.

I was not a witness to the next movement of my brother's furniture, but I saw his van off from my driveway. Under an overcast sky and a tremendously tender rain, the van was chained onto the tow truck. The young, handsome driver took a good few minutes to examine all the parts calmly before he started to pull away, soon turning in a direction opposite to the one my brother used to go in. Just before departing, the driver turned back and waved at me. I waved back absentmindedly, seeing my brother's smiling face when he left my driveway for the last time and when he paused to wave good by--for the first time! I came back inside after a few minutes and breathed the saddest sigh of relief in my entire life.

My bitter tale does not end with the government taking over. In fact, I have a nagging feeling that sometime at the end of the road, somehow, something will go missing or wrong. My tale continues with persistant desperation ...

One day in early March, the "park" manager called to say, in an overtly nice and amiable voice: "Spring is approaching and the frost melting ... You may now want to drop by and order your tombstone. Only if you order now can it be ready by early June." Five or six of us got together and went to see him in his small office. He pretended he was "pleasantly" surprised to see the "whole group" of us dropping by on a rainy day (by now, we were used to finding different parties surprised at our collectivity). We decided quickly what we wanted, placed an order, and paid half the fees. He, in turn, made promises, and everything else was postponed or forgotten, which is not quite news. Still, how much perseverance does it take to call up the park manager every other week to remind him that your brother's gravesite needs more soil so that after each rainfall it will not look like a lake? How much motivation and courage does it take to ask him to do his job when you know you are not allowed to take the initiative on the piece of land you own and when you are certainly not capable of threatening him with taking your trust back?

Life goes on indeed, despite ... and without ...

As for the burying of a family member in the host country being the last stage of settlement, I am not sure I feel any more settled than before. I am definitely more fully equipped with the knowledge of the host society-that of the aftermath of death-but I am also awakened to a despair: that death is not in any way different from life in a host country.

Since his adolescence, when my brother became familiar with, and fascinated by, some of Buddha's teachings, he was greatly inspired by the poem "Like a Rhinoceros." He used to read his favorite part (which he knew by heart) aloud:
 If you gain a mature companion,
 a fellow traveler, right-living & wise,
 overcoming all dangers
 go with him, gratified,
 If you don't gain a mature companion,
 a fellow traveler, right-living & wise,
 go alone
 wander alone, like a rhinoceros.

Whether he indeed wandered alone in his life, it is too late to find out or seek a remedy for. I know for a fact that his abandoned belongings did end up wandering--not alone, however, but with my picture.


I am grateful to family members, friends, and colleagues who, by reading this piece with empathy, shared the burden and gave me support and courage.


Government of Quebec. 2005 edition. What to Do in the Event of Death. [accessed 10 March 2005]

Afsaneh Hojabri is trained as an anthropologist and is a freelance researcher on the issues of ethnic minority and women's rights. She has worked as a project coordinator for the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) for the past eight years. Publications include: Women of Iran: A Subject Bibliography (co-edited with S. Mojab, IWSF 2000), and Like Parvin, Like Najiba, Like Heba, We Are All Different: Reflections on Voices of Women in Diaspora, in Muslim Diaspora, ed. H Moghissi, Routledge, 2006.
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Author:Hojabri, Afsaneh
Publication:Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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