We’ve entered a season of deaths in Ulrich’s family. His father, the eldest of five, was the first to pass away last year in the early hours of American Thanksgiving, which of course isn’t celebrated here in Germany. That evening, instead of stuffing our bellies full of treats, Ulrich and I sat sipping tea in the anemic light of our kitchen and recalled his father’s last moments. The following month, on Christmas Eve, Ulrich’s aunt Carla took her last breaths after months of declining health. In April of this year an aunt on Ulrich’s mother’s side died suddenly after suffering an embolism. And finally, last week, Ulrich received the call from his cousin Johann: Uncle Egbert, who had been slowly dwindling over the past three years, had passed away at the hospital.
Just like that – over the course of a year – there was only one surviving sibling left on Ulrich’s father’s side of the family. Or perhaps two: nobody knows if Uncle Hans is alive. Ulrich is pretty sure that he moved into a senior home some years ago, but there hasn’t been any news after that. That leaves Uncle Franz, the youngest and an alcoholic, who has become the family’s black sheep. Ulrich visited him shortly after his father’s funeral and found him living alone among empty wine bottles and dirty dishes, an unidentifiable stink trailing him wherever he went.
There had a been a series of falling outs among the Krull family starting about thirty years ago. These were disagreements that would seem ordinary to most people who have siblings: scuffles at family gatherings, rivalries and jealousy, frustration over each other’s faults. But something must have snapped when Ulrich’s grandmother passed away after a long bout with dementia. Ulrich’s father fought with Aunt Carla over who would inherit their mother’s cookbook. There was a misunderstanding with his sister-in-law about whether Ulrich’s family could spend the night during a trip out of town. There were other fights, too, whose details have since been forgotten. But now, instead of moving on, the siblings stopped speaking to each other. It was like some threshold of hurt had been crossed and they gave up on each other simultaneously.
Ulrich and I picked his mother up from her house in Bochum and drove the approximately three hours southward towards Longuich, a village on the banks of the Moselle River. We planned to spend the night there, then drive the additional forty-five minutes to Uncle Egbert’s funeral services the next day in a small town adjacent to Saarbrücken. I was recovering from a nasty cold which had trailed me home from our recent vacation in London and left me with a lingering cough which had the tendency to possess me for minutes at a time, causing me to shake violently. I was worried about the prospect of launching into fits during the funeral, but I pushed the thought away and figured I could stand at the back of the church.
It was close to 9 pm when we reached the hotel in Longuich, and the three of us celebrated our arrival with a glass of slightly fizzy Riesling over dinner. Ulrich and I ordered cheese Spätzle while his mother had wild boar jelly, a transparent gelatin dotted with chunks of meat which was served in the upside-down mold of a mise en place dish next to a heap of roasted potatoes. At night, Ulrich and I were both kept awake by my coughing fits.
The next morning was gray and foggy but the forecasted rain hadn’t materialized, so Ulrich’s mother and I made our way down to the Moselle, which was only about a five minute walk from the hotel. We took pictures of the river framed by orange- and red- tree boughs, a tuft of fog hanging low overhead.
Shortly after breakfast we began the drive towards Ulrich’s aunt’s house. Aunt Bertha had invited us over for a quick coffee before the funeral services.
It was the first time that Ulrich and his mother were seeing Bertha in about twenty-five years, when there had been the misunderstanding over a place to stay. I immediately liked her. She was stocky and boisterous and pronounced my name correctly, which is even more rare in Germany than it had been in the U.S. She didn’t speak high German but rather a Saarland-based dialect which made certain syllables sound squishy; I could understand somewhere between 50 – 60% of what she said, which is only about 10% less than what I’d typically understand of a high German conversation.
Ulrich ventured into the living room in awe. The room was dark but not gloomy; a couch upholstered in a brown-and-orange floral pattern sat across from two reclining chairs which were framed by an arching white floor lamp. In the middle of the room on a small oak table sat a framed picture of Uncle Egbert from last summer. He was smiling and rosy-cheeked.
“We didn’t change a single thing,” called Aunt Bertha behind Ulrich. “We never felt the need to.”
“It’s fine the way it is,” Ulrich echoed in agreement. I could tell from his grin that it felt like he had been there just yesterday.
Over coffee and sparkling apple juice Aunt Bertha told us about Uncle Egbert’s last years. He had become a miserable, unpleasant man who bottled up his emotions and withdrew inside himself. I could see the wincing pain in Aunt Bertha’s eyes as she described how torturous it’d been to care for him during that time. She described how he’d let his identification card expire and stopped talking to people; stopped trying. He barely left the couch throughout the day except to take his meals or go to bed and needed Bertha’s assistance at every step.
When Ulrich’s mother got up to use the toilet Aunt Bertha leaned in and whispered to us, alluding to the fights which had torn the siblings apart. “The Krulls have always been stubborn, so unwilling to forgive,” she sighed, closing her eyes and shaking her head slowly.
It finally started pouring rain, as the forecast had predicted, as we made our way over to the Catholic church in the middle of town. The weather had been similar for Ulrich’s father’s and Aunt Carla’s funerals too: cold, dreary, and wet. I wonder if one should still consider this “bad weather” for a funeral – or is it merely appropriate?
We found a parking spot in the shopping center across from the church. Sheets of rain rattled our umbrellas as we rushed for dry cover. We entered the church and put on our face masks – black to match our outfits – just as Bertha’s sister recognized Ulrich’s mother and engulfed her in a hug. Bertha stood with Johann next to the first row of church pews and motioned for us to join her. “You belong with the next-of-kin,” she whispered to us, and I understood her gesture as both loving and lonely: she wanted to put the past behind her, and she didn’t want to sit alone in the first row.
Up until that point I had managed to keep my coughing under control; on our way down from the Moselle that morning we had stopped briefly at an Aldi and I’d bought a cheap package of eucalyptus drops which provided surprisingly effective relief. I’d been shoving eucalyptus drops into my mouth one after the other, and a tingly film had accumulated around my tongue and throat. But my muscles tensed as I sidled towards the middle of the first row, remembering my original plan to stand at the back of the church. What would I do if I had a coughing fit?
A priest and a priestess, dressed in identical white robes overlaid with a purple stole, entered the nave through a door to the right of the sanctuary. They sat facing us in chairs next to the alter and led us through a series of hymns, then stood up and recited a prayer from the lectern. I watched the silhouette of Aunt Bertha from my periphery and made sure to stand whenever I saw her stand and sit whenever she moved to sit. The priestess turned to address us in the first row and highlighted moments from Egbert’s life which Ulrich and I were hearing of for the first time: how he had an undeniable soft spot for children, how he used to drive his Smart Car up to the crosswalk in front of the church to help escort them across the street. Sensing a burning itch sliding up the inner wall of my throat, I directed my attention away from the service and entered a semi-meditative state.
Suppressing a cough at a funeral feels like holding your breath underwater: it seems easy at first, until little currents of panic begin rippling into your consciousness.
I looked at the gold-ribboned robes on the statues on either side of the crucifix, then at the overhead chandelier with brightly lit orbs bound together by black metal rods. Stained-glass windows in vivid hues contoured the twisted body of Christ. A cough began to erupt from my lungs and I swallowed rapidly, grateful to have a face mask to muffle my desperation. I rested my eyes on a single pink polka dot on my umbrella which hung on the front of the pew. The priests’ words formed a cushion of audio around my head as I clenched my teeth, managing to diminish the fit to only a few dry coughs.
Now the priests were making the sign of the cross and I tried to mimic them but got my directions mixed up, accidentally motioning from my right to left shoulder instead of left to right. I wondered if anyone noticed my mistake.
We returned to our cars and drove the few minutes down to the cemetery, where we reconvened for a final prayer in the mourning hall before walking Uncle Egbert down to his resting place. Unlike Ulrich’s father and Aunt Carla, Egbert was not cremated. His wooden casket was flanked by wreaths of flowers and leafy green plants which, upon checking, I was relieved to find were real.
When it came time to bid Egbert goodbye we lined up in a row and were presented with two options: to shovel a bit of dirt over his coffin, or to use an aspergillum to sprinkle holy water over it in the shape of a cross. I was eager to try the aspergillum, but Ulrich and his mother went before me and both chose the shovel, having been raised Protestant. I gave in and used the shovel too.
Behind me an older man stood over Egbert’s casket and performed a salute.
The last part of the funeral was the coffee-and-cake gathering, as there had been for the others as well. We piled back into our cars and drove, through more sheets of rain, to a quaintly decorated café which served us sandwiches, potato soup and three varieties of cake cut into palm-sized squares. Aunt Bertha chatted endlessly, a constant stream of information to fill in all the gaps left empty over the years. At around half past four, when we decided that we needed to get back on the road, she lingered by us until the very end, starting and stopping new anecdotes and saying goodbye over and over until we finally drove off, waving back towards her diminishing silhouette from our rolled-down windows.
On the way home I doubled over in a fit of raw, inflamed, hack-your-guts-out coughing. It was as if all the coughs I had suppressed earlier were finally discharging from me at once in guttural, crashing waves. I thought back to Aunt Carla last Christmas, who was still suffering on the day we last saw her, when the senior home had placed a rush order for a special “palliative kit” to ease her pain. She didn’t notice us enter the room and seemed restless, shifting her arms and legs under the bedsheets in constant search of unattainable comfort.
It is still hard for me to wrap my head around the nature of the siblings’ anger, what amount of simmering resentment must have built up over the years to lead them to embark on a decades-long period of silence – there were no obligatory calls or text messages for life's milestones, no last-ditch attempts at reconciliation. Even as their health deteriorated and their deaths became visible on the horizon, they could not compel themselves to reach out to each other, not even for comfort. Was it really a matter of pride or unwillingness to forgive the past, or rather an inability to imagine a harmonious future?
I remembered something that Aunt Bertha had said earlier that day: “So ist das” (“that’s how it is”). It’s a phrase that I have often heard the other Krulls say too.
My first encounters with death had been clouded by tragedy, but these recent experiences have had a different feeling to them: more like a slow, shaky exhale, a gradual returning to breath after a sustained period of withholding. The Krull siblings may have given up on each other during their lives, but through their persistence they indirectly ensured that their survivors would compensate: the in-laws and cousins are back in touch, promising to see each other again and planning new family-themed events. A generation of the left-behind is tending to the open wounds of the ones who came before them.