Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Four Funerals and No Wedding

This year I have attended four funerals so far.

First my father in March, then my partner's 10 year old niece who died tragically, then an ex I dated in my 20s and now my mother's cousin.

It has been a sad yet surreal time amid other big transitions in my life. Blogging has taken a bit of a back seat, though I have no intention of abandoning it. Facebook and Twitter have their uses but you can't write on them. Not properly. In fact  I find Twitter so trivially tedious I seldom log into it at all.

But what I wanted to talk about in this posting was how important I've come to realise funerals are and how badly they are often done.

They are not just a means of paying one's final respects, but of processing what has happened towards attaining some kind of 'closure' as the Americans like to call it. I was therefore shocked when the last funeral I attended lasted but a scant 19 minutes before the curtain closed around the coffin. The officiator seemed to think that wearing a long black velvet coat with a ceremonial-looking scarf excused the fact she mumbled into the microphone, hardly made eye contact with the congregation. didn't inform us what sort of service it was and scarcely had anything to say about the deceased she did not delegate to his unrehearsed family, giving the impression she had not even visited them prior to the funeral to get the measure of the man. To cap it all she had even neglected basic housekeeping announcements so that a mobile phone went off across the Crematorium chapel in the middle! - luckily to be quickly silenced. My own mother almost didn't switch hers off when I reminded her saying 'Oh, no one ever rings me on it anyway.'
I think it was supposed to be some kind of 'alternative' funeral, but apart from the wicker coffin, it was impossible to gauge what genre of send-off it was meant to be. Afterwards the 'officiator' skulked in the corner of the anti-chapel avoiding people's gaze rather than shaking hands with each mourner and thanking them for coming/commiserating on their loss like any other brand of minister would.

Was this the deceased's wishes? Did he really ask for such a brief service where no one seemed to know what they were doing except for perhaps getting his choice of music right and finding a nice poem to go in the middle?

In complete contrast my partner's ten year old niece had an extraordinary funeral and wake which seemed to consist of several days of prayers and blessings prior to the committal. Not coming from a religious background, I didn't know what was going on half the time, but couldn't fail to be intensely moved and comforted by all the Catholic ritual and amazed that the Police closed roads for the cortege to pass through and park along village streets, classmates formed guards of honour and an archbishop performed the church blessing the night before the actual funeral. Nothing was too much trouble for the undertaker and he was in evidence until late each day transporting the coffin to this venue and that and then home each night where Emily lay in repose in the dining room for people to go and talk to her or touch her or leave a little token of love such as a card or a ribbon in her white casket. After the hour and a half long funeral during which her friends took her favourite toys up to the alter and spoke about them, her mother sang a beautiful song about the flowers in May accompanied by her father on the guitar and many prayers and tributes were said, the heavy rain confined itself to all around the village, leaving the pallbearers free to carry the coffin the mile down the road to the Good Shepherd Cemetery in the bright sunshine to be committed to the flower-lined grave. The sympathy and kindness of the whole community was similarly amazing and the  family home was subsequently full of people for weeks rallying round her shattered parents and making sure they didn't have to do a thing for themselves. A child's death is always a big thing in Ireland apparently and Emily's unexpected collapse on a school sports field one Saturday morning as she was warming up to play Canogie made the national headlines and hit a national nerve. People literally came from all over to pay their respects, and a minute's silence was held for her on Canogie fields around Ireland. Emily loved being the centre of attention in life and she couldn't have had more attention in death, so although she was such a tragic loss as the youngest member of my partner's family (and his brother's only child), there was some crumb of comfort in the sheer amazingness of the almost-state funeral she had. I had only recently met her for the first time, but will remember her and how full of life she was for ever as she rode my partner's back round his parents' living room demanding to play horses even longer. She was joy personified and had the energy of three children rolled into one. The last child anyone would suspect of having such a devastating undiagnosed heart defect waiting to strike.

My ex Don's funeral was a modest affair and not as well attended as it should have been owing to the fact he had lived a life in three chapters encompassing three quite different areas of the country. Rather embarrassingly, few of the congregation seemed to know the words, even to 'All Things Bright and Beautiful, so that I almost felt like a soloist at times. However the service was at least unrushed and in the safe hands of a confident Mancunian everyman's minister, evidently well-used to the role, who performed a rare feat in delivering a warm, witty and very human tribute to all the best qualities of a man he had never met with a decidedly roguish side, going so far as to say he wished he had met Don as he felt they would have enjoyed a pint together. The Nottingham football anthem played Don in and Mungo Jerry played him out, but it was 'very Don'. The sun shone on the surprisingly pleasant Mansfield crematorium and his ex-wife hosted a 'wake' of afternoon tea on her garden lawn several miles away after.

My father's funeral was a deliberately humanist affair, further complicated by the fact he had no time for music or poetry either. Though considering he would never even acknowledge the fact he might ever die in life, his wishes were necessarily largely guesswork. My sister and I composed the eulogy with inserts from the Humanist Minister who visited our family twice and couldn't do enough. He even managed to talk my sister out of some weird excerpts from sci-fi books she wanted to insert into the service for no apparent reason. The day itself was as awkward as my father was - blowing an unfeasibly snowy gale in mid-March so that half the would-be congregation were snowed in their hillside farms (not an excuse, it made the TV news). Nevertheless we had a half-full Chapel and the service was expertly delivered by the minister, with a couple of non-religious readings finally agreed on and performed by my sister and myself. Music-wise since our father was a big fan of The Onedin Line TV series, we opted for the moving tones of Khachaturian's Spartacus. At the end we inserted a CD of Glenn Miller (the only music artiste he had ever said he could abide) cued up to play 'Moonlight Sonata',  but surprise, surprise, the CD player refused to budge despite five minutes of frantic fumbling so his willow coffin was forced to depart the chapel to silence and a long drive to the snow-blown cemetery on the outskirts of town where the gale carried on howling a blizzard around the walls, but inside restricted itself to intense arctic cold. After a few well-chosen words by the minister, his body was committed to the ground by grave diggers who evidently couldn't wait to get away and we fled to the modest reception at a historic water mill in the village where my mother had arranged vegetarian catering (a first for the local bakery, but they did us proud). Once again technology failed us as we tried to play a DVD of my father talking about his historic conservation work and how he was responsible for 'Best Kept Village' judging in Northern Ireland in a TV production from 1994, yet later back home the DVD played with no problem, as indeed did Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Sonata' track.

Ultimately I have concluded that apart from attending a funeral, striving to be true to the person whose life is being celebrated is the most important thing as organiser of the onerous duty (though even afterwards, the argument with my mother and sister over the 'Fred Flintstone' style gravestone they favour for my father rumbles on as I point out quite rightly, that it wasn't his style and it is in fact my sister who is the archaeologist and amateur druid in the family).

Maybe those of us who can (ie adults) should all make a separate will purely for our send-off to ensure it is not a haphazard or naff package affair and that our final wishes and favourite pieces of music are in no need of guesswork or the imposition of others' notions of what we want, which often seem to have more to do with what they want.

Meantime, I have been making tentative enquiries about training to become a celebrant as I reckon I'd be pretty good at it and it seems to be the way things are going in England. Though I certainly wouldn't be seeking to put the 'fun' into funeral if I went down that road, rather re-inject the professionalism where it is lacking.

Amidst awaiting my next wedding invitation to balance the sad events out a bit, that is.