05/26/2010 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mother to Mother: A Bilingual, Interfaith Funeral

Roberto died at High Valley, our center, after a long illness. During his last weeks, his friends Karen and David cared for him there, joined by his mother Luisa from Venezuela. Until my mother-in-law Olga's recent move to a nursing home, Karen and David shared a house with her. (She is also from Venezuela.) Olga's last years at home coincided with the years Roberto, a musician from New York, stayed at High Valley frequently. Whenever he visited, he played Venezuelan folk songs on his cuatro for Olga. In her nineties and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Olga still knew all the words and sang along, tapping her feet to the rhythm. Olga and Roberto were more than compatriots. They came from the same island, Margarita, and spoke the same dialect. With his music, Roberto restored Olga's memory of her earliest years.

Roberto requested that his ashes be scattered at High Valley, the place of his deep friendship with Karen and David, the heart of an earth-centered community in which he joyously took part whenever he was present. The morning of his funeral was warm and clear, the air full of birdsong, floating seeds, and blossoms. The chaplain from hospice, a Roman Catholic nun who spoke fluent Spanish, came to officiate. Of those gathered, five spoke only English, three were bilingual, and Roberto's mother spoke only Spanish.

Sister Maria was dressed in a simple suit with a cross on her lapel. She had been making visits to the family for the last two weeks when hospice services were put in place. She was quiet and confident; she had created a simple structure for the ceremony that left ample room for spontaneity. Her translations were seamless, her ways of including others sensitive and inspired.

Karen opened a book of poems at random and happened on one addressed to a mother who has lost a child. At Sister Maria's suggestion, Karen read a line in English and Roberto's cousin translated in Spanish. Then Sister Maria read in Spanish the Gospel story of the disciples recognizing Jesus in the breaking of bread. "And so," she concluded, in Spanish, then in English, "when you hear music, that is how you will recognize Roberto, our hermanito. You will know that he is with us."

Spontaneously we sang a chant that Robert had loved and that we had sung to him in the last weeks: "We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the one." Encouraged, Roberto's mother then sang a hymn to the Virgin Mary calling her to guide Roberto's spirit. We all joined in the chorus, "Ven, Maria, ven!" It was one of the most powerful, intimate invocations of the divine mother I have ever heard.

Sister Maria then told us it was time to return Roberto to the Mother Earth. Luisa became very calm and still. She took the bag of ashes and went to a metasequoia tree that Roberto had loved. She flung his ashes; the wind caught them and lifted them into light before they fell among the roots. With sureness and strength, Luisa moved to the lake and gave ashes to the water, and then to the fire pit where Roberto had cooked arepas many times. And finally she walked to a huge copper beech that she called "el arbol rojo."

At Sister Maria's instruction, I had fetched a pitcher of water, "so that she does not have to wash her hands at the sink." Underneath the red tree, where the last of Roberto's body had been returned to the mother by his mother, Sister Maria poured water over Luisa's upraised hands, murmuring prayers that needed no translation.