Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Unlike my native Flemish, in which you’re simply called a tombstone maker, the English language offers two grand words to describe my father’s craft – "memorial mason" and "monumental mason" – though their definition in the Collins dictionary receives but a disappointing one-line explanation of “a person who makes gravestones and suchlike” (and after reading that, I honestly didn’t bother to check any other dictionaries).
Personally, I rather fancy the aptness of the term “memorial”, the adjective “monumental” conjuring too many images of Pharaohs, pyramids, “and suchlike”, dixit the aforementioned dictionary.
Needless to say then, that with a fair share of my father’s craft thriving on the inevitable finality of life and man’s wish to be memorialised, people dressed in black were a familiar sight around the house when I was a boy. These were the late sixties and donning the black to mourn a family member was still a well-observed and strict tradition in Flanders.
Sitting at the kitchen table, doing my homework or playing with my toy soldiers, facing the two large windows that looked out on the stonemason’s yard and workshops, I would often see these sad silhouettes shuffle by on their way to my father’s office to choose a tombstone, the last in a series of funereal practicalities the bereaved had to cope with. Usually, they arrived in pairs – an elderly widow, veiled and stooped, accompanied by a son or daughter – and sometimes there would be the loner, the widower, a rarer sight, since wives tend to outlive their husbands. He would come on his own in a show of male strength, though deep down he knew, with Martha gone, his world had crumbled and he wondered who would cook for him now, darn his socks and sew on his missing buttons.
Though I did understand these people had suffered some great loss, theirs was a sorrow I couldn’t relate to. I watched, curious, but unmoved, till one day a man in black appeared, holding two boys by the hand. As they passed, the tallest of the boys looked in, his head and shoulders barely clearing the windowsill, and I felt a chill run down my back. I knew this boy. Though not part of my circle of friends, he did attend my school, one or two grades down. Our eyes briefly met, and then I looked away, suddenly worried, fidgeting in my chair and scanning the kitchen to find my mother. She was there, still there, by the stove, stirring pots and pans, preparing supper. Reassured, I turned to the window again, but the boy had disappeared. Still, I shivered. Something had changed. Death, in a small black suit and with a pale, translucent face, had finally looked in with its dull, black eyes and breached the double-glazed defences of my kitchen sanctuary.
Eyes – dull, and black. And then I remembered, black was not a colour, so we had been taught in physics class. Black absorbs all colours and reflects none. Black is the absence of light, and in the boy’s eyes, there had been no light. They were but two dark wells, bottomless, and dull.
That day, the boy I was, decided death was a thief – a cruel, relentless thief of light and colour.
The man I am today still agrees with the boy. Every loss I’ve suffered has felt like a theft, an unchecked injustice. But I’ve also learned the world holds too much light and colour for death to ever steal it all.