Poets break the silence for Amsterdam’s unmourned dead

By Alexandra Hudson

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – It took two weeks to discover the
body of the 43-year-old who killed himself in an Amsterdam
attic, leaving a note to say he couldn’t take any more.

Abandoned by all who had known him, the man’s sad, solitary
life would have been echoed in a sad, solitary funeral, were it
not for a poet he had never met.

Frank Starik leads a group of Amsterdam poets engaged in a
highly unusual civic project — attending the funerals of the
city’s unmourned dead and remembering them at the graveside
with a specially-composed poem.

It spares people the indignity of a funeral without
mourners, says Starik, a gaunt figure in a black jacket with an
air of the Romantic poet about him.

“I want to give them back a life, a history,” he said.

Amsterdam social services bury some 250 people a year,
about 15 of whom leave no trace of relatives or friends. In
such cases, the poets are called in.

“It makes us feel better that we can do something for the
person who has died,” said social worker Jeroen Ranzijn. The
poems break the silence otherwise filled by a relative’s

The city is unique in the lengths it goes for such

“In Belgium — just 100 miles away — they barely collect
the body,” Ranzijn said.

In Amsterdam, his department provides a coffin and — in a
country with flowers in abundance — a funeral bouquet. They
even arrange for a song to be played, guessing what music the
deceased may have liked from their possessions or ethnicity.


“Everyone in Amsterdam — rich or poor — should have a
dignified funeral, with flowers, with coffee and some thoughts
about their life,” said Ranzijn.

“We are not responsible for how they lived, but we are
responsible for them in death, and if they died in Amsterdam
then they are one of us.”

Mostly such deceased are elderly people who have outlived
their companions, or asylum-seekers on the fringes of society.
Occasionally, they have met a violent end.

Ranzijn attends the funerals and thinks they have the touch
of a personal goodbye. That helped in the case of the suicide
victim. The death shook him — they were the same age.

Starik dismisses any suggestions that the poets are
motivated by voyeurism, melancholy or a self-indulgent fantasy
about death. For him, it is about restoring dignity to the dead
and giving poetry a more socially-oriented purpose.

The poets are not out to collect juicy material for their
art — even though the theme of the lonely funeral has featured
in works from 18th-century sentimentalist poetry to the
Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.”

Starik acknowledges there is a political aspect to the

“Part of the hidden agenda of this is that we have a very
right-wing government, who are against foreigners, Muslims, and
who are trying to reconstruct a society we had 50 years ago.”

“This is not such a nice, tolerant country any more.”

For migrants or asylum-seekers who die alone, the funerals
are a chance to give them back their humanity and to consider
their individual hopes and experiences in a climate contriving
to demonize them and view them as a single mass, Starik says.

Dutch society is still reeling from the murder of filmmaker
Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist militant in 2004
which provoked an anti-Muslim backlash.

The murder of anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn in 2002
also saw mainstream political parties move to occupy his


Usually only scant details are available to the poet about
the individual, sometimes not even a name. Starik believes that
if you know too much about someone it becomes harder to

More often than not, simply the circumstances of their
passing are striking and tragic, and worth remembering aloud.

One man, a stowaway, was found dead on arrival from Africa,
crushed by the heavy doors of the ferry in which he had hidden.
He had a small knapsack on his back with food and medication to
see him through to the new life he hoped for abroad.

Starik began the graveside recitals at the end of 2002 and
since then he and other poets have attended more than 50
funerals. He hopes the network of poets can one day cover the
whole country.

The initial idea, Starik said, came from witnessing
changing attitudes to death and funeral lore, and the fear that
the burials of the lonely might seem all the more dismal.

“There was a time when death was looked upon in a very
instrumental way. That has changed in the last decades
particularly with the number of people dying young of AIDS.
They knew death was coming and wanted new rituals,” he said.

He admits he thought long and hard about how people would
respond to the idea of a poet’s presence.

“I did fear that there’d be people thinking ‘it is bad
enough if you die alone, but even worse if some poet shows up
for your funeral’.”