How are you? Are you well? Have you recovered from Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Epiphany? The next few days I’ll be discussing words that mark the end of life or, if you will, the birth of the hereafter. I’ll be talking about words that can plunge you into deep sadness but they can also stir up intense joy…
As you know, I love cycling through The Hague. Everywhere I went in the past few days, I encountered the same friendly face of a nameless man (or a woman?). Wherever I went, the intense eyes looked into mine. Night or day. On the poster there were just two lines of text: ‘Ik ben inmiddels overleden’ (In the meantime I died). And in smaller letters: ‘Vecht mee tegen een genadeloze ziekte, ALS’ (Fight along against a merciless disease, ALS).
ALS is short for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neurone disease (MND) or Lou Gehrig’s disease in the USA). It is a rare but debilitating neurone disease causing weakness and muscle atrophy and spasticity. The Dutch ALS Foundation started this campaign a year ago. And it turned out to be extremely successful. The first poster in the campaign (early 2013) showed a portrait of Pim Mensen who died half a year earlier. You can see Pim talking here.
Each time I see one of these portraits while I am cycling, it sends shivers down my spine. The person who seems so alive in the photo, you realize, has departed from this world. We are in two separate universes and yet there is something between us. There is some contact, even if it is physically one-sided. The eyes make me aware that I am still alive against all odds.
‘Being alive is such a short, yet wonderful affair… do something with it’, the eyes say each time we meet in the street.
The verb OVERLIJDEN (die) has a magical ring to it. I always thought the verb was a junction of the two words ‘over’ and ‘lijden’ (suffering). I explained this combination to myself as follows: dying goes hand in hand with suffering (lijden). Some fundamentalists would even go so far as saying that life is suffering. Anyway, I thought that the preposition ‘over’ indicated crossing the borderline of suffering. In my interpretation OVERLIJDEN carried the blissful expectancy of being beyond suffering.
But I was wrong. As usual. Never trust your etymological instincts! Listen to the experts. Consult my favourite etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs (for instance) and she will put you right in a kind but scholarly way.
In OVERLIJDEN the verb ‘lijden’ is the medieval word for ‘to go’ or ‘to pass’. So OVERLIJDEN means to pass over from this world to another life. The Dutch have forgotten this meaning of ‘lijden’ but there are a few existing words that kept fossils of this meaning. Past week e.g. is ‘verleden week’ or a week ago is ‘een week geleden’. Knowing that there is no reason to associate OVERLIJDEN with ‘suffering’ pleases me and it even gives me some consolation. For, if push comes to shove, dying is not much more than going away for good and all. HEENGAAN (passing away) as the Dutch also say.
In many OVERLIJDENSBERICHTEN (obituaries) and advertisements those who stay behind like to play with verbs like ‘going’ (gaan) and very often they quote the magnificent poem ‘De gestorvene’ (the deceased) by the Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt (1905-1997). In life she was a teacher of the classical languages. I’ll quote the full poem here and offer you a ‘free’ translation of my own.
Zeven maal om de aarde gaan,
als het zou moeten op handen en voeten;
zevenmaal om die éne te groeten
die daar lachend te wachten zou staan.
Zeven maal om de aarde gaan.
Zeven maal over de zeeën te gaan,
schraal in de kleren, wat zou het mij deren,
kon uit de dood ik die éne doen keren.
Zeven maal over de zeeën te gaan –
zeven maal, om met zijn tweeën te staan.
(from ‘De Slechtvalk’, 1966)
Cross seven times this earthly sphere
if need be, crawl on hands and feet;
seven times so I can greet
the one who’s awaiting me with cheer.
Cross seven times this earthly sphere.
Seven times cross seas and land,
thin as a rake, so what, if I could make
the one who’s dead to be awake.
Seven times cross seas and land –
seven times, so we stand hand in hand.
(translation: © Ruud Hisgen, 2014)