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‘Dutch clown lightens up funeral as the final curtain goes down‘

Bring on the Gentle Clown

By Connie Moser - american journalist - 2003

Clowns have a sense of humour, make us laugh, are absurd, hilarious – the red nose, floppy shoes and slapstick would be inappropriate at a funeral – but Roelof van Wijngaarden is a Dutch “mourning clown” who offers friendship and intense understanding in his death-defining act. He is not looking for laughs, but to loosen up the audience at the final curtain.

Roelof van Wijngaarden is Holland’s “mourning clown” although he prefers the term “ritual clown.” A professional clown for over 10 years, his appearances at funerals constitute only a very small part of his work. “There is a great deal of interest in the role of the clown in funeral expressions, while grief processing can come in many forms. There is also the grief of those incapacitated through an accident, Alzheimer’s, dementia, mental illness, addiction, those marginalized by society.” His interest in providing a supporting role in the lives of people impacted by exceptional situations, has found him performing in nursing homes, handicapped institutions, schools, hospitals, as well as funerals.

Van Wijngaarden has always been fascinated with how other non- western cultures have incorporated funereal clowns into their death rituals. The cultural aspects of dealing with their emotions and honouring the life of the departed with wailing, chanting, dancing, song, celebration, storytelling, all to honour the dead, and in finding personal ways for expressing grief, celebrating life and releasing emotions.

“We live in a hard society where people like to feel that they have control over their lives. That life can be measured, controlled, insured. It is away for people to create their own world where they feel safe. It is an illusion. Playing upon our fears, we become over insured, take out a policy for every contingency. We look for guaranties. Even to neatly insuring death.

Funerals in a box, a fixed package, emotions in another box. Everything arranged. We are locked into conventional thinking. Socially expected decorum at a funeral or cremation often inhibits a persons behaviour in the true expressions people want to share.”

We are invited to break tradition and taboos in how we view death. Van Wijngaarden is part of a Network of Funeral Service Renovators, bringing together innovation and the talents of over 100 members, funeral directors, morticians, artists, ceramicists, dramatists, musicians, writers, all offering alternative ways to say farewell. There appears to be a breaking through of the conventional procedures orchestrated by an undertaker. People want to consciously contribute to providing the form, in personal wishes honouring the deceased, in performance arts, or in waddling cloths, specially designed urns, custom made coffins, painted lids, or other creative expressions.

Recently at the funeral of a very vain person, he first polished the lid of the coffin before facing the public, and remarked, “So, now you are nicely laid out, looking all neat and proper.” The mourners are bewildered, curious, and obviously reserved. It takes a bit of getting used to the clown, but once he gets started, he is even able to generate a warm round of applause for the deceased. You can feel the audience begin to soften from their cold restraint. However, he’s not always looking for laughs.

According to Marry Brokking, of Brokking and Bokslag Funeral Directors in Haarlem, chairperson of the Network of Funeral Service Renovators there is a lot of enthusiasm for the new thinking and opportunities for celebrating or mourning the life of the deceased, “We carry out the wishes of the family, although often they do not know about the many possibilities available, so there is a tendency to fall back on the traditional. However, in providing them with time and attention, often the deepest wishes of their hearts come to light. People who have led a colourful or eccentric life often want their send off to reflect their personality.”

Van Wijngaarden even began the study for undertaker, though did not complete it. “We are taught by the society in which we live, through the lives of our ancestors how we deal with death. The expressions of our grief be it stoicism or anguished tears, the rituals we form. Our perceptions of death influence our reactions as well. Some see death as a release from all the burdens of our earthly existence, while others cannot release the panic, fear and overwhelming sorrow for the departed. It is that missing of the person we grieve, the moments and memories shared that are no longer possible. Death itself comes to each and everyone of us, inevitably, perhaps unexpectedly, but nonetheless, we all come into the world alone and leave alone as well. The clown as a gentle companion, a patient friend, can provide much solace.”

Reactions have been mixed, from curiosity to disbelief, bewilderment to avoidance. Is Van Wijngaarden afraid of offending people? “I only come when I have been invited by the deceased or by the family. We clearly discuss before hand why someone wishes to have a clown at their funeral. Sometimes the person had something to do with clowns, their estranged look, or with the clown as a symbol of life. Some people will reject me, but my presence is always small. I am only there for those who want to see me.”

“The strength of the clown is in his vulnerability,” Van Wijngaarden explained, “in his fragile power to be what he needs to be for another person in a variety of circumstances. In his openness and non-judgemental improvisation. Humanity is hidden in this, in the recognition of self. In sharing simultaneous laughing and crying.”

Through his work with CliniClowns he came into contact with seriously ill children, and also with death. Entertainment and distraction in the hospital only reaches so far. The “mourning clown” brings more depth to human contact. His passion to reach those hardest to reach, to help unburden those bound up in grief and unexpressed emotions, to lighten lives, this is his inspired calling.

Gentle clowning is a manner of making contact without words. A hand on a shoulder, a hug, an affectionate touch, warm looks. “The gentle, small presence of the clown draws those to him who are willing to meet him. The closer we are to nature, to our natural response, the stronger the contact. The gentle clown is just who he is, and what you know, or think that you may know is given a place in the midst of your doubt, grief and panic. He is a comforting presence.” Van Wijngaarden concluded.

In answer to the many requests to learn to be a “ritual clown” Van Wijngaarden offers special workshops on “gentle clowning” based on the gentle teachings of American John McGee PH.D. Respect, gentleness, sincerity and unconditional love for the person, are key, in touching the “heart to heart” of emotions.

The strength of the clown is in his ability to hold a mirror to ourselves, to have us look at our foibles, the fragility of our existence, the absurd humour of the human drama. There is profound recognition in the very act of how we see our selves. In a clown’s performance, the grotesque and reality are exaggerated, to help us to see ourselves as we really are. Releasing emotions allows us to share our true self with others. Embrace the clown in the human spirit ”

Gentle Clown Roelof van Wijgaarden can be reached via www.gentleclown.nl

Quotes from the industry: (not used in article)

Montua Undertakers, the largest funeral company in The Netherlands. Mr. Westerveld, funeral director at the Hoofddorp office “ Little by little we are receiving more requests for other personal expressions, but we still have a long way to go. People tend to stay with what they know.”

Myosotis Undertakers in Amstelveen: Bob ten Boekel, funeral director, “People are giving a lot more thought to how they wish to fill in the funeral service, but not in the extreme. Clowns and painted caskets are not a real trend. Netherlanders are sober people; they want the same kind of service as what their parents had. Sometimes for a younger person there is more music included, but nine out of ten times people just want 30 minutes in the aula, some music, and a speech or two.”

Uitvaart Media, funeral industry trade journal, The Hague, Jasper Enklaar, spokesperson on trend watching: “What we see in the past ten years is a lot of initiative to change, there is a great spring of creativity to be tapped, although you need to put this current interest into perspective. Anything unusual attracts media attention, but this should not give the indication that there is a large market for it or that a need exists. The majority of people reasonably expect to follow along similar lines of tradition, and a funeral clown is a rather extreme example. Personal wishes provide for a choice, perhaps salmon and champagne instead of coffee and cake, or in more modern music, sometimes live music, or performed by family members.”

Mr. Enklaar continued, “It is a generational question. Today’s elderly are reasonably traditional in their expectations, but the choices available to today’s 30 and 40 year olds when they plan their funerals in the future will undeniably play a greater role. Of the 140,000 people who die each year in Holland, very few choose elaborately unusual services. There are exceptions of course, like celebrity Herman Brood, or Peter Giele, owner of Amsterdam’s Roxy nightclub whose remains were displayed in an open casket floating on a barge through the canals of Amsterdam. This shocked many people, as the last viewing of the deceased (body) is considered rather intimate.”

“For something different that is not too extreme, Hesselman International (www.hesselman.nl) rents a specially made Harley Davidson motorcycle with a side car constructed to support a coffin. Obviously this is popular with motorcycle enthusiasts, and bikers clubs and it is used a couple of times each year. Ellen Jansen, the Amsterdam artist known for her beautifully painted coffins sells only a few of them each year. There is a new movement, but it is not a normative standard.”

Roelof van Wijngaarden