A Swiss funeral, free of charge and modest

The freshly-dug grave in the communal plot lies ready. A tightly-packed flower arrangement in yellow, orange and red provides the only colour on this grey day on the outskirts of Zurich in Schwamendingen cemetery.

Though Zurich has historically been a stronghold of Protestantism in Switzerland, the proportion of Swiss residents who profess no religion is now greater than the share of Protestants (25 per cent to 24 per cent). Amid changing times, one tradition has endured in this city: plain is preferred over showy. 

The mourners, a group of about twenty, have gathered at the cemetery gate. They are waiting to be told what to do. The burial is scheduled for 11.15 a.m. First the gravedigger comes to the grave carrying the urn in a wicker basket. He lifts the lid, removes the simple wooden urn and leaves it standing beside the freshly-dug hole.

The urn is worth CHF 550.00 but it comes free of charge as part of the basic funeral package offered by the city of Zurich to all residents. There are no private undertakers in Zurich.  

No funeral service

Led by a pastor wearing a beret over her shoulder-length grey hair, the family approaches. The pastor is in conversation with an official from the municipal funeral service, Petra Paul, a kindly woman in her fifties. Her job today is to lower the urn into the grave.

The family have opted to say their farewells at the graveside. There will be no funeral service, religious or otherwise. This is not unusual any more, Petra explains later. In an increasingly secular society, there are no more certainties on how to mark the passing of a loved one.

Four generations are represented today, from the sister of the 92-year-old deceased to her great-grandchildren, two tiny tots who quickly become restless and have to be led away during the 15-minute gathering. 

There is a forest on the hill adjacent to the graveyard. The noticeboard at the entrance carries a warning that deer are eating the flower arrangements and asks for understanding. Foxes and badgers are regular nocturnal visitors to this quiet spot.

The minister talks about the deceased, a warm-hearted woman whose door was always open. She expands on the concept of the ‘life of life’, the divine life that binds us all. After Petra lowers the urn into the grave, some family members step forward to drop a single red rose in after it. Someone has pressed play on an unseen device, so that the instrumental of ‘Time to say goodbye’ plays softly at this moment.

The lowering of the urn is easy, it is encased in a length of netting. But family members are often too nervous or too upset to take on this task. What if they get it wrong? Petra feels it can be an important part of the grieving process. A symbolic separation.

As this is a communal grave for urns, the exact burial spot is not marked. By the following day, the bouquet will be moved to the metal platform nearby, available for the bereaved to leave their tributes. The name of the deceased will be engraved on a metal plaque with the others, along with her dates of birth and death.

As birds caw and whirl in the sky above, we withdraw, leaving the family alone. Schwamendingen is one of 19 graveyards in Zurich. Petra and I return by tram to the city centre. She tells me she likes her job because she can achieve a lot with very little. “People have the resources to deal with death. My job is to foster these resources.”

The right words

Back at the office Petra has some calls to make, searching for next-of-kin of deceased people who died without any known family. She must also be available to advise people who come to notify the authorities of a death in the family.

Her office is the Funeral and Cemetery Service of the City of Zurich, located inside the imposing neo-Gothic City Hall (Stadthaus) on the banks of the Limmat.

The office operates a walk-in service for the official registration of death announcements, an obligatory task. In a small waiting area, the bereaved may peruse the display of 12 different-coloured leaflets, with information on everything from fees for various grave planting arrangements to how to go about scattering ashes. There is also a catalogue of urns and coffins and a list of professionals who provide secular funeral services.

Without too long a wait, visitors will be ushered in to see one of three funeral advisors on duty, with urns on their bookshelves, who will help them make the necessary decisions.

For Petra, this is the most important part of her job. Formerly, she worked as a translator and, she observes, there is one point the two jobs have in common: the importance of the right word. “Finding the right words is so important. The right words mean so much to the bereaved but the wrong word stays wrong forever.”

I wrote this article earlier this year for a magazine but the story was dropped because it was felt that it might be depressing to read about death in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. My feeling is that death is never far away and we should know what to expect. Many thanks to the staff of the Funeral and Cemetery Office of the City of Zurich for making me welcome (especially Petra Paul) and allowing me to share the article here.

My Swiss TV debut on Telezüri

English-speakers are really spoilt in Switzerland, more than any other language group. The locals gladly switch to English at the first opportunity, call centres for banks and insurance companies have English-speaking operators, most websites have an English page, and the state even produces much of its official documentation in English.

Of course that makes it harder to learn the national languages but most of the time it’s an advantage. I’ve written before about the challenges of being a non-native speaker when you live in a foreign country. My language ability varies, mainly depending on levels of confidence and tiredness in a given situation. That’s why is was such a breakthrough for me to accept my first television interview in German and to get through the interview in one piece!

This time last week I was googling tips to prepare for a television interview. Now, the interview is behind me and it’s a huge relief because everything went well. Not that I didn’t make any language mistakes but I managed to make my points clearly and calmly. The 25-minute discussion was broadcast yesterday by Zurich television station Telezüri. The host was Hugo Bigi and I was joined on the Talk Täglich show by fellow Bergli Books writer Wolfgang Koydl, author of Switzerland: A Cartoon Survival Guide. Above is a clip from the interview, and you can view the full programme on this link.

The Telezüri interview was a real case of stepping outside my comfort zone. It was daunting but extremely rewarding. Speaking in public is challenging for many of us, whether it is giving a presentation in work or asking a question in a lecture hall. One of the positive outcomes of writing The Naked Swiss has been that I have been forced to practice public speaking. Now I am at the point that I really enjoy it. It is a privilege to be given a platform to express your ideas, and I am glad to have overcome my fears, as a woman, as a semi-introvert and finally, as a foreigner, so that I can speak up and be heard.

A positive African voice in Switzerland

Lisa Chuma loved this gift from the organisers
Lisa Chuma loved this gift from the organisers

It you had to talk about your life, would it make a good story? Would it inspire people? I listened to someone in Bern yesterday who has the gift of being able to present an inspirational narrative of her life. Her name is Lisa Chuma and her message is about empowering women in business.

Chuma is a rarity in Switzerland – an African businesswoman. The Zimbabwean-born entrepreneur has been attracting attention in Swiss media since she emerged as the founder of Women’s Expo Switzerland, an annual networking event in Zurich which serves as a platform for businesswomen to showcase their products and services.

As a journalist I’ve sat through more than my fair share of talks. These are usually horribly detailed presentations involving a criminal amount of line-by-line Powerpoint reading.

The talk by Chuma was like a breath of fresh air in comparison. It’s not only her message that has a positive effect, it’s how she communicates the message.

Watching her last evening, I was trying to figure out the secret. Chuma took her time speaking to us. She paused to allow her ideas to sink in. She built her message around stories that were all linked to defining experiences in her life. This was public speaking as a form of storytelling.

What I found most interesting is that the stories Chuma told could also have been presented as stories of suffering and defeat. Chuma spoke about her mother’s brave decision to leave an abusive marriage and the tough year she spent at a Zimbabwean boarding school when her mother was establishing a new life in London.

The inspirational part came in the support that Chuma’s mother received when she left her husband. It was a difficult place and time to be a single mother. Her female friends rallied round and thanks to their practical and emotional support she was able to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse and achieve financial independence.

We need to see more women helping women, Chuma said. Too often we have fine ambitions but when we come up against our own limitations we give up. The trap of talking ourselves out of progress is more a female one, which is why Chuma’s focus is on women. Together we can achieve much more. Chuma’s talk was really aimed at women who have their own businesses but the principle can be applied to any area of life.

Chuma came to Switzerland because of her husband’s job and began her life here moving in expat circles. She noticed that expat women were not mixing with Swiss women, both groups wrongly assuming they were not needed or wanted by the other. It is a great achievement that she has broken down those barriers and built a community of businesswomen in Zurich who are now actively collaborating with each other. The vast majority of women who attend the annual Women’s Expo are Swiss.

The talk in Bern was organized by the American Women’s Club of Bern and Bern English Resource Network BERNnet, which happens to be a great example of Chuma’s ‘better together’ principles put into practice.

If you’d like to see Lisa Chuma in action, here she is giving a TEDx talk in Zurich this summer.

Siri Hustvedt ablaze in Zurich

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Siri Hustvedt is a literary legend and the owner of a brilliant mind, two reasons why I had to go and see her reading in Zurich yesterday. The old Schauspielhaus theatre was packed but it was not an occasion to sit back and be entertained.

It is customary for Hustvedt to throw out a rapid succession of philosophical references and intriguing ideas so that to listen to her speak involves a certain amount of mental gymnastics.

The New York writer had some interesting things to say about memory and imagination, and their link with creativity. Visualising the future and remembering the past are an essential part of being human but imagination is required for both, she said, just as imagination is required to create art.

Because the imagination is involved in recalling experiences, what we remember is not always reliable. “Every time we retrieve a memory it is open to revision,” Hustvedt told the audience.

Before I had a chance to crumble into a heap of self-doubt, questioning every memory I hold dear, Hustvedt had moved on to talk about the fact that creativity comes from play. Not to be able to play is pathological, she said, because play is an indispensable part of our existence.

So when we’re writing we’re playing? That makes perfect sense, especially when I think of the way my youngest daughter plays, completely immersed in creating worlds and characters.

I loved Hustvedt’s description of what novelists do. “We put on masks and discover, go to places we didn’t know.” What we find can be surprising or even disturbing.

Hustvedt believes we are all strangers to ourselves and, “artists confront that strangeness more often than other people”.

The appearance in Zurich was part of a promotional tour for the German translation of Siri Hustvedt’s latest book, The Blazing World. The book tells the story of an embittered New York artist late in her career who decides to take revenge on the misogynistic art world by passing off her creations as the work of three male artists. They receive the massive acclaim that the same exhibitions would not have garnered for her but things do not go according to plan when she tries to assert her claim to the work.

Hustvedt is very eloquent in her attacks on sexism and misogyny, whose imprint can be seen all the way back to Socrates, she explained. On my way home I wondered why it meant so much to me to see such a towering female intellect in action. People like Siri Hustvedt are there to banish any lingering doubt that women might not be as brilliant as men. Because, sadly that doubt does still linger in a world so utterly in thrall to male achievement.

Not only does Hustvedt question the expectations of gender, she also finds the notion of self problematic. “We all demonstrate in our daily lives a plurality of selves.” This plurality makes it all the easier for Hustvedt to inhabit the characters she creates, as long as that happens within a safe creative space she calls the “aesthetic frame”.

As for her writing habits, Hustvedt writes every day except Sunday. She finds novels harder to write and periodically reads back over the book to make sure “the rhythm is right”. If it’s not right she’ll delete the last section. This approach is at odds with the keep-writing-never-look-back advice I’ve often read for first drafts. But the most important rule in writing fiction is to do what works for you.

Speaking of the plurality of selves, The Blazing World is told in the voices of twenty narrators, a technique that Donal Ryan also used in his breakthrough success The Spinning Heart. Coincidentally, it was while attending a reading by Ryan in Zurich Literaturhaus in April that I saw Hustvedt’s name in the summer programme (see previous post).

I’ll be keeping a close eye on their programme from now on.

Are there any Hustvedt fans out there? I read two conflicting reviews of The Blazing World, published in May last year. The Guardian review was largely positive but the Financial Times ripped the book to shreds. So far I’ve only read two of Hustvedt’s five novels – What I Loved and The Summer Without Men, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

Honest words from Donal Ryan in Zurich

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Imagine a struggling writer standing over his kitchen sink burning page after page of handwritten manuscripts because he doesn’t want any record of “these travesties” to remain on earth.

That’s what’s Donal Ryan did with seven or eight (!) novels and one hundred (!) short stories before he became Ireland’s most successful debut author with the release of The Spinning Heart in 2012. I heard this account from Ryan yesterday evening at a reading in Zurich Literaturhaus. His honesty and Tipperary accent were a tonic.

In fact some of the early work that Ryan destroyed was festering in the hard drives of old computers and it was a case of delete and empty trash rather than burning. But what made him trash the old material and believe in his first published novel so much he submitted it “to every publisher in the English-speaking world”?

Ryan discarded the work he wrote in his twenties because it didn’t ring true. “The voices were too forced and contrived and I had a weird low-level nausea in my stomach when I was writing.”

Then, with The Thing About December, Ryan tuned in to the right station, as he put it, and found his voice. The book, written before The Spinning Heart, was published last year and tells the story of Johnsey, a vulnerable young man in rural Ireland, hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the changes life thrusts upon him after his parents die. The story is written in the close third person and Johnsey’s predicament is told in his own deceptively simple language. The writing is moving and eloquent, and funny when it’s not devastating.

The story is well described in this Irish Times review.

Ryan spoke about love a lot on Monday night and reading between the lines he appears to care deeply about Johnsey and what the character represents. Even his mother became fiercely protective of Johnsey and spoke of him as if he were a real person (rather endearingly, Ryan mentions his family a lot).

Ryan’s compassion is evident when he is talking about his characters. “Johnsey is a distillation of all the men I know who don’t speak. And I know lots. These are men who live alone in totally isolated farmhouses. I wanted to know what the inside of their heads would sound like.”

“All stories are about love, or the absence of love. All stories are based on declensions between those two states.” Ryan repeated this idea, which seems to be his motto.

I’m in the submission doldrums at the moment, that point when a writer begins to doubt their worthiness and the wisdom of committing so much time and passion to the whole enterprise. So of course I asked Ryan how he struck submission gold. He mentioned sheer luck and a scatter-gun approach but perseverance seems to have been the key.

Interestingly Ryan wrote The Spinning Heart (also set in Johnsey’s village but about a decade later, and written in 21 chapters of different first person narratives) swiftly and without a struggle while he was submitting The Thing About December, to take his mind off the rejections.

When he moved on to the submitting stage with The Spinning Heart he clocked up dozens of rejections. He kept print-outs of his email rejections in a folder and once, when asked by a journalist, made a rough count of forty seven, but there were more that didn’t make it into the folder, he said.

Ryan has been described as the best literary chronicler of the Celtic Tiger but in typical unassuming style, he says the fact that his two novels provided bookends for the Irish economic boom was accidental. “It was fortunate for me because it got me published. It was my hook.”

Donal Ryan has a collection of short stories coming out in December, also set in the same fictional village as the novels. He describes it as the best work he’s ever done. Meanwhile, work on his third novel is progressing painfully, he admits.

I left the Literaturhaus with a smile and with the feeling I was fortunate to have spent time listening to a great ambassador for Irish writing. It’s a reminder that whenever things get tough, it’s good to connect with other writers (if only from a distance) for inspiration and encouragement.

I’ll be back in Zurich next month to attend a talk by Siri Hustvedt. Can’t wait!