Last month I went to the funeral of my uncle Ken, my mum’s brother-in-law. He was 82. I was a funeral virgin, as my grandparents all died while I was living abroad, and my parents decided - sensibly, I think - that they would donate their remains to medicine rather than shell out over three thousand quid to have them elaborately packaged and incinerated. So there was no funeral for my dad, and there won’t be one for mum. There is another reason why my mum doesn’t want any ceremony: she has a horror of being overwhelmed by emotion, especially in public. I suppose this is the one streak of Britishry in her personality. There’s no lack of powerful emotion in there, but it is only given expression when she’s alone. On the eve of the do, my sister and I drove up to my mother’s from Suffolk and Lincolnshire respectively, and my niece and nephew came up by train from London and Southampton. We invited a friend round, cooked a nice dinner, and had a pleasant evening with no mention made of the obsequies to come.
The following morning.
We drive to the crematorium where people are gathering, some of whom I have not seen in forty-odd years and would have walked past in the street, but recognise because I knew they’d be here. Someone tells me I haven’t changed much, although I’m pretty sure I look older than eleven. Others I see occasionally. Lesley, my mum’s younger sister, mutters to me ‘I hate this bloody place!’ and reminds me of a story about my grandad, a stone mason who’d worked on the crematorium building. It seems that he’d been asked if he wanted to witness the burning of a corpse, and on the grounds that this was not an offer you got every day, accepted. He watched through a spy-hole as the stiff unstiffened and writhed in the flames like the damned in the Lake of Fire. I’m not sure if all the details of the tale would stand up in court, but whatever it was that grandad saw that day made him a vegetarian for at least a week. He declared that he never wanted to go there again - a vain hope if you’re going to live in the same town into your eighties, for the crematorium just sits here, waiting patiently. We also remember Auntie Cilla, our family’s medium manquée, who also hated the crematorium because she always heard voices calling her by name as she walked through the grounds, a phenomenon readily explicable in a place as thick with archetypes as this. Lesley herself came to sign the book of remembrance a year after grandad had undergone the same process as the corpses he had watched combust all those years before. She had walked down the long winding drive to the crem as daylight was fading, and found the place closed and the air as always heavy with loss, misery and dead meat. She turned and fled. This reminded me of a monochrome dream I had in the eighties. I was in a crematorium building alone at night. There was a horror movie feeling of don’t-look-now as I tried to escape, for then I was always creeped out by the sight of coffins, hearses, wreaths and shrouds, all the trappings of death.
Now the hearse arrives, with the coffin and the flowers, the trappings of death. We troop into the chapel and take our seats. I lived for many years in Greece and have not been in a British church since my sister’s wedding thirty two years ago. Greek churches have seats only for the elderly and the service goes ahead whether anyone’s listening or not. People walk around, talk, go out into the square for coffee, come back for a bit, go out again. Here, we are seated as at a cinema, and we’re obviously expected to listen. Looking at the coffin, I see Ken standing beside it. He’s laughing and pointing at the box as if it and the whole pricey, poker-faced rigmarole we are engaged in were one huge practical joke, and we had yet to see the funny side. Back in my woo-woo days, I’d have taken this ‘vision’ very seriously. Now I just dismiss it as a brain-fart.
A bloke in a suit closes the doors, another comes up to the mike, and we’re off. It’s a relief that Ken was not a believer, and we will not be required to pray or sing hymns. The second suited bloke reads the eulogy: ‘In life, we encounter our death only once…’ No shit, Sherlock! Well, there’s a profound observation for you! I’m tempted to whisper this to my nephew but forbear, correctly anticipating that there’s a fair bit more such stilted deepity to come and we can’t spend the next forty minutes stifling our clever-clever snickers. Actually, the whole thing is just boring. I sit counting the breaths and giving myself Alexander technique instructions: ‘neck free, head forward and up, shoulders out and down…’ obviously to prevent myself from getting in any way emotionally involved – I have a lot in common with my mother. At length, we’re informed that Ken, like pretty much everybody else who's gone on ahead, has chosen to be played out to Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way’. The ‘final curtain’ closes off the alcove where the coffin lies, and it’s extraordinary how poignant this song, which I’ve always loathed, has suddenly become.
We file out into a pleasant conservatory-like place behind the crematorium building. My mum is in tears and apologising for it: ‘I do wish I could do better than this!’
We reassure her that tears are perfectly OK at a funeral, and that she’s far from the only one weeping, but she’s not having it. ‘You feel such a chump when everybody else is handling it so much better.’
A friend of my auntie's says to her gently, 'come on, Shirley, you need to be strong for Joan.'
'I can't help it,' mum sniffs. 'Some are just better at handling tears than others.'
This buttoned-up attitude would be inexplicable to the Greeks, who don't think you have emotions at all unless you're playing to the gallery. Auntie Joan, in British terms at least, is doing remarkably well, accepting consoling hugs with smiles, dignity and composure. In contrast, after my dad died my mum wouldn't answer the phone for three weeks in case it was someone offering condolences, which would result in instant meltdown.
We're a bloody odd bunch.
Along the path up to the car park there’s a wall where you can leave flowers under a plaque with the name of the person whose funeral you have attended. Ours was not the first today and it isn’t the last. There are a few hundred more people today who’ll be feeling the same heaviness on entering and relief on leaving.
There’s a reception at a nearby pub which restores some normality, but not entirely for me. I haven’t fully digested my first funeral yet. I keep going over it in my mind, and thinking how not so long ago, I was so sure that death was the start of a big adventure, and now this belief seems absurd – it’s simply illness, death, a box, a curtained-off alcove and then the flames. I know I will not have one of those dos for myself. For me as for my mum, a funeral brings no sense of closure, only a sense of brooding darkness. They can dump my corpse in an old pram and shove me over a cliff.
I live here. Rummage around and talk to me.