We felt like we were being serenaded with kindness when we learned that in the Netherlands and Belgium there are official ‘City Poets’ who brighten otherwise lonely funerals.
Akin to a town crier, or some other mainstay of a Middle Ages-set period piece, the City Poet has only been an official position since the turn of the 21st century.
As quaint is it may seem, the job is a serious one, for upon his or her shoulders rests the responsibility for composing funerary poems for those who die anonymously, unclaimed by friends or family.
In an exploration of the Lonely Funeral Foundation, a collective of poets that work to ensure every individual who falls through the cracks of Dutch society has some kind of memorial service, published on the Ploughshares blog at Emerson College, Boston, the reader learns of a stark yet moving tradition that is both modern and rustic, and speaks to the responsibility of a society in the 21st century.
A City Poet is defined by The Mayor Initiative as “a remunerated professional with clear job requirements and term duration. He or she is usually appointed by the City Council for a limited time with the objective of writing poems about the city they come from—for the good and the bad times, but also for regular or random events, official occasions and ceremonies, with the objective to inform and entertain the citizens.”
The Lonely Funerals concept was put forward by one such City Poet—Bart Droog of Groningen, in 2001, after which it spread to other Dutch cities and to those in Belgium, another country that started the City Poet idea around the same years.
In Amsterdam, where a dozen people might die unclaimed per year, the City Poet has to, at a moment’s notice, be ready to transform himself from artist to sleuth.
Details about these people can often be scant—presenting a huge challenge to someone trying to write a poem, much less one in memory of a life.
The City Poet must be ready to collect records of lodging, employment, and immigration, or talk to neighbors and others that might have interacted with the person.
There is a simple prize for a yearly contest to see which poet composed the most moving lonely funeral poem, organized by Ger Fritz, a former employee of the Amsterdam Department of Funerals, and one of the originators of the concept.
“People are story machines… What the Lonely Funeral does is return stories to people who have somehow lost theirs along the way,” an Amsterdam poet Frank Starik, told the Ploughshares Blog.
Also speaking with Ploughshares, poet Hester Knibbe remarked at the difficulty of the job: “How do you write a poem about someone you don’t know anything about… ? It’s like a word that just won’t come: you describe, you try to imagine a basic life, trying to force it into some highs and lows.”
Sometimes details are so scant, the poets must fight the urge to fill in gaps with recognizable themes from literature or from the poet’s own life.
Pioneer Droog refers to the Lonely Funeral Foundation as the “social task of the poet,” and indeed it’s considered a vital civil service akin to social insurance or other benefits; that through honoring those the society let down, those who remain can perhaps work to better it.