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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘death’

The burial

What happens after you die

This is one of an occasional series of articles recounting the stories around my dad’s death from cancer in 2019, and what happened afterwards. More specifically, this post follows on directly from this one about his funeral service.

Personally speaking, I don’t have much experience of funeral services. At my dad’s I was steeling myself up to have to say thank you, afterwards, to all the people who had come along who I didn’t know at all. I remember as a child, being taken to church: the priest standing at the door as everyone filed out, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming. Somehow I had assumed we’d probably have to do the same thing, thank everyone for coming and for feeling suitably sad. Indeed, the undertakers asked if we wanted to stand outside the church and speak to the other mourners. The Mother, though, wasn’t ready for anything like that. She wanted us to get going as quickly as we could.

“As quickly as we could” is a bit of a misnomer for a funeral, of course. The Rector at The Mother’s church had already told us she liked to lead processions from the church to the cemetery on foot. At, it turned out, a fairly glacial pace, one step at a time. The cortege followed, and I tried to carefully drive at a matching pace without accidentally rear-ending the hearse. We crept through the village lanes linking the church and the cemetery, waiting at junctions for passing traffic, watching old men stop and remove their hats as we passed. The whole journey was well under half a mile, but it felt like an age.

Naturally, the rest of the extended family had all reached the cemetery well before us, and had all half-blocked the lane outside the cemetery with their cars to some distance either side of the cemetery gates. Not exactly knowing what to do, and with the limousine carrying my father’s frail sisters right behind us, I blindly followed the hearse through the cemetery gates and up the path. We just fitted through: but of course we did, you have to be able to get a hearse into a cemetery after all. We sailed slowly up the single path that runs up the middle of the field. The village cemetery is nearly full, with only a few spaces left available to people who lived within the bounds of the parish,*, so my dad’s grave was tucked away down at one corner at the far end, a mound of wet clay marking it out. Hand-dug by a professional artisan gravedigger, because the parish council has put a ban on mini-diggers. My mind naturally wondered if this would be a selling-point in Bishopston or St Werburghs.

We gathered around the muddy hole, its edged protected with fake turf. When all of us were in place, everyone decanted from their cars, the pallbearers carefully carried the wicker coffin over and solemnly lowered it into place. The Rector said her piece, and we scattered soil; then, one by one, flowers from a bunch of white roses. The undertaker had suggested this idea, “but don’t buy them from us,” she’d said. “Go to a supermarket before the funeral and pick some up, it’ll be a third of the price we charge.” So we had dutifully stopped off at Morrisons on the way there, for a bunch of white roses to be thrown into the grave. I took them round the mourners, offering them out to my various aunts and uncles and cousins in rough order of consanguinity downwards. Behind the hedge at the edge of the cemetery, a horse started neighing. The Child Who Likes Animals was trying to get away and look for bugs and minibeasts in the undergrowth.

I took out my phone, trying to be relatively discreet, and took a photo of the coffin lying in the grave with soil and roses scattered on top. The last one. Soft rain had started, and the relatives were all heading to their cars, ready to head off to the waiting buffet over on the other side of the village. The bespoke artisan gravediggers were, I assumed, hiding somewhere round the corner ready to start their hand-shovelling as soon as was tactful, as soon as we were all out of sight. Loading the family back into the car, I gingerly reversed back down the path and out to the lane, dead slow lest there be any elderly relatives directly behind me. It wouldn’t really do to drive over somebody at a funeral.

* If you already own a plot but want to open it up to add another body, then the village council charges you about fifteen times more if the new body comes from outside the parish. Can’t be doing with outsiders moving in for eternity, I assume.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenback for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

In the lead

Or, two Hallowe'en posts in one week!

So, yesterday’s post was originally going to be this blog’s sole Hallowe’en post for this year. As it happened, though, the other thing I did yesterday was take The Children out to visit one of the local castles, which turned out to have at least its fair share of autumnal creepiness and gloom. It was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just to the south of Bath, originally built in the 14th century by Sir Thomas Hungerford, first Speaker of the Commons. Nowadays it is almost entirely ruined, a couple of jagged towers propped up and stabilised by English Heritage concrete. The only buildings left standing are the chapel and associated priest’s house.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Farleigh Hungerford castle

I said there was some autumnal creepiness: for one thing, the wife of one 16th-century owner allegedly spent years locked away in one of the castle towers, in top-notch fairytale fashion. The owner himself, Walter Hungerford, was later executed for treason, witchcraft and anal sex; however, how much of that actually happened and how much was just a result of being tangled in Tudor politics is rather difficult to tell.* A few decades prior to that, one lady of the house castle had reached her position by rather nefarious means. Agnes Cotell, wife of the castle steward, had her husband murdered and his body burned in the castle ovens so that she could marry the owner Sir Edward Hungerford. Presumably it was common knowledge; because only a few months after Sir Edward’s death, Lady Agnes and her accomplices were tried and hanged.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Underneath the chapel, a small crypt contains a handful of anthropomorphic lead coffins, mostly adults with a couple of infants. They sit on shaped wooden boards, bodies presumably still inside them, behind an iron gate. Aside from their silver-grey colour the look for all the world like carefully-shaped human pies or pasties, their edges tightly crimped.

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

I was slightly disappointed that no ghostly emanations or mysterious mists appeared on the photos, to be honest. Upstairs in the chapel are a number of tombs and effigies, making me think (as always) of the E Nesbit story “Man-sized In Marble”, in which church effigies like this go wandering on Hallowe’en.

Chapel tomb effigy

Chapel tomb effigy

The older pair of effigies are firmly secured behind iron railings; maybe put there by someone else who knows their E Nesbit ghost stories. Maybe, though, the shiny, glossy marble pair will be getting up and going wandering tonight.

* He was a Parliamentary ally of Thomas Cromwell, and was executed alongside him. Which reminds me, I should really get a copy of The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel, in which Walter Hungerford will presumably appear.

Heart of stone

Or, taking The Mother shopping

The other week, I said how you can’t just bury a dead body without there being an awful lot of paperwork involved, at least not in any sort of above-board way. Moreover, one thing I didn’t even get to was that: when you do bury a body, you can’t just pop the gravestone up at the head of the grave there and then. The rules vary from place to place, but to avoid causing some sort of tragic subsidence-induced gravestone-toppling accident, you have to leave the grave to settle for a number of months with some sort of temporary grave marker in the ground instead. Then, some while later—and potentially when you’ve saved up the money, because gravestones are expensive—you can pull up the temporary cross or whatever and replace it with the final thing.

As the months pass after the funeral, then, you can slowly start thinking about what style of gravestone you might like. The Mother, naturally, was all for just going through the catalogue the undertaker had sent her in the post, but I thought it might be a bit nicer to see if we could find a local independent business to work with, instead of a faceless national chain. “I bet all the ones in the catalogue are hugely overpriced,” I said, appealing to her miserly side. “Why don’t we find a local stonemason instead, who you can go and talk to?” But of course I knew we couldn’t get a gravestone put up until May, and in May it would have been impossible to go looking for one. Eventually, though, I realised that we should probably start thinking about getting one before it became impossible again. So, I made the trip up to The Mother’s house, so I could get the wheels in motion.

I was all prepared to go with the “this will be cheaper than the undertaker” line again, but it turned out she had lost their catalogue anyway. “It doesn’t matter how much it is,” she said, “if it’s for your dad.” If only he’d had the same attitude about me, I thought, and didn’t say.

The other thing I didn’t say, but which to my mind was constantly hanging in the air, was: do that many people choose their own gravestone? It must be all people like The Mother, widows and widowers. How much do they actually think to themselves: this will be my gravestone one day? Do they revel in it, or do they just try to blank it out of their mind? I’m sure The Mother, who has been blanking things out of her mind and refusing to talk about them her whole life, will be doing the latter almost without thinking about it, as she’s had so many years of practice.

It’s strange how many Elderly Person tropes The Mother has seemingly adopted. I wonder at what point do they suddenly become the logical way, in your mind, to behave. Her current preferred way to pay for things seems to be to carry around one or two empty coffee jars filled with coins, and complain about how heavy they are. She can’t walk unsupported for more than a few yards without being at risk of toppling over. “You should get a stick,” I said. “The doctor told me to get a stick. Your uncle’s going to make me one from a Brussels sprout plant.” I tried to explain, firstly that he’s probably thinking of a Jersey cabbage; secondly that she doesn’t want an all-natural grown-in-the-ground wooden stick, she wants a nice light sturdy and easy-to-grip medical grade one; and, thirdly, she wants a stick now, not whenever my uncle manages to harvest and dry out a cabbage stem. Nevertheless, without a stick, I still managed to get her to the stonemason’s showroom without her toppling over at any point.

When I was a student I spent a number of weeks making site visits to various disused graveyards around the Isle of Lewis, and I remember thinking at the time: they must be terrible places for family history. Not much of the local stone on the Isle of Lewis is actually carvable; it’s too hard for that. So, most of the grave markers from say 150 years or so ago are plain, rough, uncarved pieces of rock that just happened to be roughly the size and shape of a gravestone. If you wander round one of those graveyards, all you can see are these rough teeth, no inscription, no date, no information. No risk of that now, of course. Moreover, graveyards all seem to have extensive lists of what you are and allowed to put up. I say “all graveyards”; I can quite believe that The Mother’s parish council are particularly pernickity and snob-nosed about it, going by the tone of the signs at the entrance. So, we’re not allowed anything more than 42 inches high; no life-sized angels for Dad then. No kerbstones around the grave, just a headstone. All the inscriptions and designs must be approved by the burials clerk. No inscriptions on the sides or back of the headstone. Incidentally, if you go and have a look around the cemetery you’ll see plenty of graves that do contravene the modern rules.* Clearly, they were erected in a more liberal and tolerant time than we are in now. The modern within-the-rules graves, though, are certainly much more legible than the older ones, to say nothing of those ones I saw on the Isle of Lewis, because they all tend to be in polished black marble with gold or silver inlaid lettering. And, indeed, that was the sort of product the stonemason guided us towards. “It weathers well,” she said.

“Won’t it get dirty from the rain? From all the pollution in the rain?” said The Mother.

“No, it’ll discolour a lot less than a paler colour,” said the stonemason. I’m not sure why The Mother thinks she has particularly dirty rain.

“I hate to be blunt about this,” I lied, “but we do want to plan ahead because eventually my mother will be, you know, using it too.” She looked at me, her expression cold, just as always.

“Oh yes,” said the mason, “a lot of these stones will have space for two inscriptions.” At least we definitely can’t have any of the tacky heart-shaped ones, I thought. “Or you can have one that has two halves, and we will leave one half blank.” My grandparents’ headstone is like that, in the shape of a book; but they died three months apart so the thing came along in one go. It would look a little odd just to fill half of it in for now.

In the end, to be honest, I think it went relatively well. The Mother will be happy with a nice, straightforward, classic design. It might look like most of the other graves in the cemetery, but at least it will look reasonably aesthetic, at least I don’t have to guide her away from something awful, which is mostly what I was expecting to happen.

“Typical,” she huffed, as we got back into the car and I pulled away.

“What?”

“That solicitors over there,” she said. “The first thing it says on their sign is: we can help you with divorce!”

“It’s something a lot of people need,” I said. I often thought, when I was a teenager, that The Mother would have been much happier if they had divorced, when I saw the effect my dad’s frequent sulks and rages had on her.

“Yes, well,” she said, “they shouldn’t.” I turned the stereo on, so we didn’t have to speak.

* I can’t be sure about that last one off the top of my head, to tell the truth. In Greenbank Cemetery, which I wrote about recently, it seems to have been standard practice to put the family surname on the back of each headstone, which must have made navigation an awful lot easier.

The bureaucracy of death

Or, negotiating the process

This is another post in a vaguely-connected series about my dad’s death, just over a year ago now, and the various events and processes that followed as a result. If you haven’t had to deal with a death in the family yourself: you might be vaguely aware of some things, less aware of others, but some parts of it will no doubt be a complete mystery, as they were to me. Moreover, if you do have to deal with a death in the family, then most likely everything you do is through a fog of stress and uncertainty. It has taken me a year to write down some of the things here, partly because of how much work all the things listed here were to do.

The first post on this—which was written shortly after the events—ended with me and The Mother leaving the hospital, Dad being wheeled down to the mortuary carefully out of sight of all of the patients and visitors, the hospital staff not entirely sure where we should be collecting the death certificate from. Probably, though, the Bereavement Office. “Phone ahead first,” they said, “they can take a while to do it.”

What’s the process after that? Well, that’s fairly straightforward to find out, as indeed it should be. You collect the Medical Death Certificate. You take the Medical Death Certificate to the local Register Office,* local to where the death happened rather than to where the dead person lived, incidentally. The Registrar fills out the Death Certificate itself, hopefully with a nice pen, and you sign it. It then gets filed away to be bound into the register proper, and they print out as many printed copies as you’re willing to pay for. These are the things people think of as death certificates, and they are the things you need to send off in the post to the dead person’s bank, building society, and so on and so forth, to kick off all their death-related processes in turn.

May as well get the ball rolling early, we thought. As I mentioned previously, we popped into the undertakers, who were lovely and friendly and helpful in many ways, but explained that they couldn’t officially act on our instructions until we gave them a green form that the Registrar would write out for us, giving us permission to carry out a burial. We phoned the Register Office to make an appointment. “Have you got the Medical Death Certificate yet?” said the receptionist.

“Um, no. The hospital said they would have that for us later. Or tomorrow.”

“You can’t make an appointment until you actually have a Medical Death Certificate.”

I was tempted to phone back and lie, but it wasn’t really worth the effort. I tried phoning the hospital; they’d gone home already.

The next day, we called and called and eventually the hospital Bereavement Office did pick up and say that yes, they’d written out the Medical Death Certificate, we could come and pick it up at any time that they were open, or weren’t having a meal break, or a tea break. “Oh, and we close at 2 most days.” We hotfooted it back down to the hospital straight away, to have a reasonable chance of catching someone in the office, and wandered around the hospital corridors trying to find the place. I half-expected it would be next to the hospital chapel for efficiency. It wasn’t, but inside there was a churchlike air of slow-moving peace and eternal silence.

We explained why we were there, and the woman behind the counter started shuffling through large boxes of uncollected death certificates (medical). And then shuffling through them again. This wasn’t a good sign.

“What did you say the name was?” A third shuffle. “It’s not here. Have you tried the ward he died on? We might have sent it up there.”

So, upstairs again to the ward we had spent so much time in the day before. Onto the ward by tailgating behind somebody else, as usual: so much for physical security. And to the nurses’ station, where some of them did indeed recognise us. “Oh, I don’t think they’ve sent it up here.”

They had, however, and after much rooting around under more paperwork and through various files lying about at the nurses’ station, we finally had a Medical Death Certificate. What did it say? I can’t tell you. We couldn’t see it. It consisted of a sealed envelope. “Don’t open it,” said the nurses. “You have to take it to the Registrar.” And, indeed, it said the same on the envelope. Deliver to Registrar. Do not open, unless you are said Registrar. Do not pass Go or collect £200, either.

To recap a moment: we didn’t have a choice of Registrar. All deaths at this particular hospital, had to be registered at the same place. Big cities might have more than one—Bristol has an outstation Register Office at Southmead Hospital that only does births and deaths, so if someone is born or dies there it can be registered on-site—but Dad didn’t die in a big city, so we didn’t have a choice. We also couldn’t look at it. Why, then, do the dead person’s family have to courier the Medical Death Certificate around themselves, sealed, with all the associated goings-on with finding out exactly where in the hospital it is?

The registration itself was relatively uneventful. It was in the Cleethorpes Old Town Hall building, by the seafront, not needed as a town hall since Grimsby and Cleethorpes merged into a single borough back in the 1990s. No doubt the big formal rooms are now used for weddings; births and deaths are tucked away downstairs. Naturally, I took the opportunity to take a quick snap of the architecture.

Inside Cleethorpes Town Hall

The Registrar left us to wait for a while whilst she looked at the secret contents of the envelope, I suppose in case it said “They did it!” inside. When happy that everything was normal and above-board she invited us in, explained how death certificates are written, took us through what it all meant and asked who wanted to sign it as the Informant. “I don’t think I could write straight,” said The Mother, “my hands are too shaky,” so I signed the register with, as expected, a very nice fountain pen. We collected our copies, warm from the printer, and paid up. We were given the “very important” green form, the one the undertakers were waiting for, the one that said the Registrar definitely wasn’t going to get the Coroner involved in anything, so we were allowed to bury one body. Cremations, apparently, have a lot more paperwork: that nice Dr Shipman’s fault. And then, we were done.

We had a look through all the various RAF memorial boards in the entrance, collected from some of the many closed RAF stations in the surrounding area, just in case Dad’s uncle, who died whilst trying to drop bombs on Frankfurt, was listed; he wasn’t. We went back outside, into the cold wind coming off the sea. Death registered. Achievement unlocked.

* Yes, most people call them Registry Offices. They’re actually called Register Offices. I don’t know why most people call them Registry Offices.

The spread of death

Or, exploring some local history

Yesterday, after the rain had stopped, we went for a walk around Greenbank, the local Victorian garden cemetery. It’s a lovely place to visit whatever the weather, but on a cold day, after a rainstorm, with drips coming from every branch and all of the colours having a dark rain-soaked richness, it is a beautiful quiet place to wander around. Even when the children are pestering you to turn around and head back home so they can have some hot chocolate and watch TV. “It is a very hot chocolate sort of day,” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

Wandering down the avenue

Exploring the graves

At the centre of Greenbank Cemetery is a connected pair of mortuary chapels: one for Anglicans, and a separate but identical one for other forms of Protestant. They have been derelict and fenced off for a long time, and their central wooden spire was taken down sixty or seventy years ago, but they are still surviving despite the failure of plans a few years ago to restore them and make them usable spaces once more. Above the entrance to the central atrium, between the two chapels, is a finely-carved inscription. “Opened 1871. Enlarged 1880.”

Greenbank Cemetery, Opened 1871, Enlarged 1880

Nowadays when you look at Greenbank on a map it’s surrounded in many places: by roads, by housing, on one side by a disused railway line. So I thought I’d dig into the archives to find out what its original groundplan was, and which parts were extended. Luckily, thanks to the fantastic work of Know Your Place Bristol and their maps, this was relatively straightforward to do. This first map is dated to 1880-81, so it seems to be after the first phase of enlargement of the cemetery. If you don’t know the area, note that it is bounded by an open stream to the west and north, and that Greenbank Road goes up to the cemetery gates and no further. I assume the original area of the cemetery was the part centred on the chapels, and the extension was the area east of the line of trees.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1881

In many ways, even without the big garden cemetery this would be a typical landscape for the fringes of a growing Victorian city: a hotchpotch mixture of farmland and unplanned speculative terrace-building. There are rows of houses without proper streets in some parts, streets laid out without houses in others, and a city-sized workhouse with its own private burial ground behind it. If I’d extended the map to the north or to the south, you’d see a typical Victorian park: Eastville Park on one side and St George’s Park on the other.

If we skip forward thirty years or so, we can see how much the landscape has “filled out”. Moreover, we can see how the cemetery has been expanded to the west. The stream has been culverted; the land to the north and south of the cemetery has been taken by allotments. This map is from 1912; I’ve traced a map from 1902 which doesn’t show this, so we can assume this expansion took place some time in the Edwardian period, more or less.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1912

In that thirty years huge parts of Easton which previously had just been sketched out for development have now become packed terraced streets, and some of the terraces which were built along narrow paths now have proper roads to them. Schools have been built, and a church. There’s a lot less open space, but there’s still some, here and there. Fishponds Road has acquired trams, up in the top-left corner; and the workhouse have stopped burying their dead on their own land.

If you know the area, though, you’ll know that it does still look a bit different today. To see the modern layout of the cemetery, we have to move forward to a 1950s map.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1955

This is the boundaries of the cemetery as it is today. Greenbank Road has been extended, and Rose Green Road has been widened to take traffic. The cemetery has swallowed up the allotments on either side of it, stretching out to reach the roads. This must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments. However, it can’t have happened very long after, going by the dates of some of the graves on the ground. These sections of the cemetery include a number of graves from the Second World War, including civilian victims and enemy prisoners.

What’s always puzzled me about this, though, is that still to this day the emptiest parts of the cemetery include some of the areas which were included in the original 1871 cemetery right from its opening. The north-western side of the original cemetery, which slopes quite steeply down to the course of the brook which marked the original boundary, is still empty of graves. It’s one of the areas being used nowadays for interment, along the line of a path which was put in place when the cemetery first opened. Meanwhile, the late-Victorian and the 1930s extensions are jam-packed with graves, many of them now overgrown and abandoned.

This is the point at which a proper essay on local history would be drawing to a conclusion and discussing what conclusions we can draw about the growth of cemeteries in provincial English cities. As for me, I just like looking at old maps. I think it’s a fair assumption, though, that that city council deliberately bought additional land around the cemetery with the aim of expanding the cemetery into it when required, and in the interim used it for allotment space. Of course, I also like wandering round a cold, damp cemetery, too.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

At some point I’ll have to write more about that other burial ground marked on the map. That’s not just disused: for many years there was no sign of it at all on the ground, until a memorial was erected relatively recently. That, though, will be a story for another day.

Update, 2nd November 2020: We went back to Greenbank the other day, with my proper camera this time, to try to see if I could track on the ground any of the cemetery’s history of growth. Indeed, you can, if you know what to look for: however, it doesn’t quite marry up with the dates of the maps I’ve found. The new post about the cemetery’s history is here.

Black comedy

On death, and its absurdity

Almost a year ago, give or take a week or two, my dad died. I wrote, a few days later, about the experience, or at least part of it. Starting from being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from the hospital, and ending with myself and The Mother walking out of the hospital, wondering what would happen next. I scribbled it down a few days later, after I had had a couple of days to process it, but whilst it was still relatively fresh in my head. The intention, naturally was to write more about the experience of being newly-bereaved, the dullness of the bureaucracy, of everyone else’s reactions to you, the hushed voices and awkward moments. Of course, none of that ever got written. Nothing even about his funeral. Much of it has now faded. I was thinking, though, now that I’ve relaunched this blog once more, maybe I should go back, go back over those few weeks last October, and try to remember exactly what it did feel like.

What first struck me at the time, though, is how darkly comic it all seems. I touched briefly in that previous post about some aspects of the bureaucracy, how hospital staff, when it happens, silently upgrade you to being allowed to use the staff crockery and unlimited biscuits, at the same time as quietly closing doors and shifting barriers around you to try to stop everyone else noticing there has been a death. Afterwards, though, it continues. The complex arrangements of paperwork that must be shuffled round to make sure the burial is done legally. The way customer service agents on the phone switch into their “condolences” voice, when for you it’s the fifth call of this type in a row and you just want to get them all over with. On that note, at some point I really should put together a list of how well- or badly-designed different organisations’ death processes are (the worst were Ovo, whose process involved sending The Mother a new contract that they had warned us would be completely wrong and should be ignored, but that they had to send out).

The peak of dark comedy, though, has to be everything around the funeral arrangements themselves. Right from our first visit to the funeral home, a tiny bungalow just next door to The Mother’s favourite Chinese takeaway. Like probably most funeral directors in the UK now, it used to be a little independent business but was swallowed up by one of the big national funeral chains when the owner retired. Because of this you can’t phone them up: all calls are routed via some impersonal national call centre. They have two people locally staffing the office, and they work alone, one week on, one week off. You have to admit that that’s a pretty good holiday allowance, but it is for a job in which you spend most of your time alone, apart from potentially with a corpse in the next room to keep you company. At the time of course, we knew none of this, so just decided to pop in to the office as we were passing on the way back from some other death-related trip.

Now, if I had written all this down at the time, or at least made notes, I’d have been able to recount exactly what was so strange about the little office. Such a hush inside, almost as if something had been planted in the walls to soak up sound. The cautious, tactful way the woman behind the desk asked how she could help us, and in my mind, the dilemma of how exactly to say. “We need to bury someone” just sounds that little bit too blunt, but equally, I didn’t want to dance around in circumlocutions all afternoon. She sat us down and took us through all the details, each one laid out in a glossy catalogue sent by Head Office. None of the prices, of course, were in the catalogue, and looking through I found it almost impossible to tell which ones were meant to be the cheap ones and which the expensive. Indeed, anything as vulgar as money was carefully avoided for as long as possible, and when it really had to be mentioned, the undertaker wrote down a few numbers on a piece of paper and passed it over to us, rather than do anything as shocking as say a price out loud.

The thing that I really couldn’t stop laughing at, though, I didn’t notice until after we took the brochures back to The Mother’s house. It was a small, three word sentence in the details of one particular coffin in the coffin catalogue.

Steel coffin

Yes, you can have a solid steel coffin if you like, in chunky thick blackened-finish steel. At a rough guess the steel in that coffin must weigh somewhere around 60 or 70 kilograms, so you might want to warn the pallbearers first. What made me laugh, though, is the thought that maybe, until they put that line in, someone somewhere didn’t realise that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to cremate a sheet steel coffin. Maybe they didn’t even realise until they opened the oven and found it, glowing a dull red still, all stubbornly in one piece, the contents turned to charcoal instead of burning.

A death

So, it’s never a good sign when a hospital phones you at 2am, is it.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer a little bit over three years ago. No doubt it was growing inside him for a year or two before that, but three years ago was when it suddenly became symptomatic, when he woke up one morning to discover he was randomly bleeding from his nose and his mouth, because his blood had given up on the concept of clotting. Prostate cancer had already spread from his prostate through most of his skeleton, to the point that it was Definitely Not Curable. Manageable, though, so much so that he may well, they said, die of something else first.

At first when the phone rang, I thought it was my alarm. Then realised it was a landline number, from my old home town, some sort of switchboard number. I didn’t catch it before the phone stopped. Then, whoever it was immediately rang back a second time.

I’d last spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier, after he phoned to tell me that he’d been to his consultant again. That was that. Not worth taking any more chemotherapy. He was going to be keeping him on one of his current treatments: it might, if he was lucky, keep him alive until the end of the year. If it didn’t work, he probably had a few weeks left.

I answered the phone rather blearily, to a random woman with my old home town’s accent asking if it was me. I found I couldn’t really speak, because I had already guessed where she was calling from and why she was calling. “He’s very confused and very tachycardic. We think you should come to the hospital.”

My mum had phoned a few days earlier to tell me he’d been admitted. He was having trouble breathing, so they had rushed him in in an ambulance, on oxygen. His spleen was failing. “They said his spleen is dead,” in my mother’s words. Now, I know you can happily live without any spleen at all, if you have to have it pulled out for some reason, but when a cancer patient suddenly starts to have unconnected organs turn into big and entirely non-functional lumps of meat, you know it’s not going to be long before phrases like “multiple organ failure” make the rounds.

The hospital was four hours’ drive away. I sat down and had a cup of tea.

Driving through the night, I wondered quite how I was going to react. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad show any sort of emotion of any sort. The day of his mother’s funeral, or any of the days leading up to it that I was home for, he didn’t cry a single tear. After the funeral we went home for lunch, then went out to buy a new camera. I tell a lie: he could get angry, he could shout, he could withdraw into a fuming silent rage. I’ve never seen him be sad, though, or show any kind of tender emotion. The roads were quiet, at first, and I had plenty of time to think about it. By 6am I was overtaking long lines of trucks heading to the North Sea ports, all of us still over half an hour away from our destinations, and I was driving towards a faint smear of dirty orange dawn light. By the time I reached the hospital, worked out where to park, it was just about dawn.

Of course, being half asleep when I’d answered the phone, I hadn’t actually thought to ask where in the hospital he was. It’s a big place, although strangely smaller than it felt when I had to go there to have my teeth sorted as a child, but the oncology ward was a very, very long walk from the entrance. When I reached the doors I had to ring a few times before a nurse came to the door to let me in; and then they hadn’t heard of him.

“Is he in A&E?”

“No, he’s an Oncology patient, and he was admitted on Sunday.”

She kindly led me to the nurses’ station and sat down at the computer, working down the list of wards until I spotted his name. And then another long walk, almost all the way back to the entrance and round another long set of stairs and corridors. I glided through the ward doors behind a nurse coming onto shift (hospitals are generally terrible at security) and found the nurses’ station. “Someone phoned about my father; he’s dangerously ill,” I said; they didn’t really need to ask who I was. “Oh!” they said instead, “you drove all that way straight here!”

He was in an isolation room at the far end of the ward. Not covered in tubes and probes as you might expect, other than an oxygen tube to his nose. He was almost naked, seemed to have thrown all the covers off the bed. Pale, almost hairless save a whiskery patch on each side of his chin, as if hairs had poured down from the corners of his mouth. He laid awkwardly, but he was awake, mumbling. My mother was there, and one of my uncles. I have a pair of uncles who are identical twins, and now I only see them occasionally every few years, it can be hard to work out which is which. I mentally started thinking to myself to avoid saying anything which might imply I thought I knew which uncle it was.

Dad’s eyes were dull, but he looked at me, and said something to me. “See, I said he would come to see you,” said my mother. He mumbled. Even unintelligible, he still had the same patterns of speech. He fumbled, moving his legs, trying to slip one out of the bed.

“Lie down and rest,” I said, like dealing with a sick child.

Mumbling: something about getting up. His breathing was forced, gasping, but strong and regular.

“No, you need to rest. You’re better here.” His skin was speckled with strange, fresh moles, some of them gory red lumps, like overactive birthmarks, standing proud from the skin by a quarter-inch or so. He was covered in bruises, including a large one roughly where, I suspected, the “dead” spleen would be, although I found out later that was just where all his medication had been injected. He started to pull at a sticky pad on his leg: it wasn’t actually being used, but looked as if it might have been for fastening a catheter tube down. “You can’t pull that off,” I said, “it says the glue is too strong. You need a special solvent.” It did indeed say “only remove with alcohol,” and I don’t think it meant “take shots so you don’t feel it.”

Mumbling: thirsty, maybe?

“Here’s your tea,” said my mother, passing him some very milky tea in a lidded plastic beaker. I knew when he had been admitted he had been nil-by-mouth; had that passed because it wasn’t necessary, or had that passed because he was on the way out anyway?

It felt like a long time, at the time, but writing this a few days later, my memory has compressed hours into a few flashes. My mother phoned the friend who gives her a lift to church every Thursday. “I’m in hospital,” she said, as if there wasn’t anyone else in the room. “They called me at 1am.” I wondered to what degree I was the second resort - how long had they waited between phoning each of us? I don’t trust my mother’s memory for facts.

He drifted away to sleep a little, but the nurses came to wash him and change his sheets, as they did at that time every morning. They asked us to leave the room, so we headed down to the deserted hospital restaurant, another very long walk away, down the same corridor that led towards the mortuary. I didn’t really want to eat, even though I had been starving whilst driving, so from the breakfast selection I asked for just a coffee, a sausage and a slice of black pudding. “Just that?” said the server, with a very puzzled look.

We sat by the window looking at the morning sky, and having relatively normal conversation. I tried not to wonder whether he would die whilst we were having breakfast, and instead wondered as to whether he would actually die today at all. This might be a false alarm; just a turn he had in the night.

He was still alive when we came up to the ward, in clean sheets, covered up now, still slumped sideways and vaguely half-awake. The nurses tried to rearrange his pillows, sit him upright, and he slowly drifted off to sleep. His breathing still the same: harsh, gasping, mouth open despite the oxygen tube by his nose. He slumped sideways again, and the nurses decided to leave him be. In his sleep, he dozily tried to pull the oxygen tube from his shoulder, but didn’t have the energy or the coordination.

The consultant and the doctors arrived on their morning round: a garrulous Scottish chap in a red shirt, Mr McAdam. “I’m sorry we have to meet like this,” he said, and complimented me on my facial hair. “We had a very lucid conversation the other day,” he said, “and we agreed it would be wrong to take any further serious interventions. Just too much suffering. He was happy with that decision.” And he ran through the list of problems my dad was facing. A burst stomach, leading to a thrombus. An infarcted spleen. Liver failure due to an additional liver disease. He didn’t actually say “multiple organ failure,” but he didn’t need to.

I realised, which I don’t think the doctors did, that Dad’s breathing was getting noticeably weaker as the doctors were stood around him. He was still breathing, though, even though it was definitely more shallow, definitely longer between breaths. The doctors filed out, trying to strike a balance between the bustle of rounds and the sombre tone needed around the families of the dying.

We watched him breathing, slower, slower and weaker, because there was not much else to do or think about. “I thought he’d gone there,” said my mum, “but then he started again.” She leaned in to see more closely, and held his hand.

There were a few seconds between breaths. The breaths themselves were shallow, hard to hear, very different from the gasping of a few hours earlier. And then: I didn’t think I could hear or see any movement any more. Nothing, and more nothing. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and took a photo of him: the phone made his skintone much healthier than reality did. “I think he’s gone,” I said. It was five to eleven in the morning.

A nurse passed the door, so I waved and beckoned her in. “We think he’s gone.”

She looked down at him, carefully. “I’ll call the doctors,” she said, “so they can pronounce. Do you want a cup of tea?” She went out, closing the door this time, and came back with tea, in the big mugs of the nurses, not the small mugs that visitors get; and some biscuits. We sat, dipping ginger nuts, the almost-certainly-dead corpse of my father in front of us. “I keep expecting him to jump up and say it’s all a joke,” said my mother.

It took over half an hour for the doctors to arrive; their job is to care for the living, after all. We stood outside the closed door of the room whilst they ran through whatever it is they do, working in a pair, I assume in case a lone doctor might be tempted to Shipmanise a still-living patient. “Do you want to go back and see him after they have done?” said a nurse. We went back inside the room; they didn’t appear to have moved him at all. Still slumped against the siderails of the bed, mouth still open, eyes still shut. His skin, getting on for an hour now after death, was white-pale and waxy-looking. I took another photo; the camera still tried to give him a normal human skintone.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” said my mother, but we walked out of the room and closed the door behind us.

“The doctors will write up their notes,” said a nurse, “and you have to go to…ooh, I don’t know!” She shouted to another nurse: “Where do they get the certificate? Is it the cashier?”

“It used to be the cashier,” said the other nurse, “now it’s the bereavement office.” Well that should be obvious, I thought. “I’d go in the morning, it probably won’t be ready today. Give us a call first to check. I’ll give you a booklet.”

We walked back down the long, long corridor, holding our fresh copy of “Help for the bereaved: a practical guide for family and friends” Where the corridor joined the next, we had to squeeze past a folding screen which hadn’t been in our way before, and a sign that said “For Ward 3 Enquiries, ask at Ward 4″; and I realised, it was a death screen, to make sure that no random strangers saw my father being wheeled in his bed, slumped against the siderails, over to the lifts and down the long corridor down towards the restaurant and the mortuary. We walked out down the corridor, and I wondered what would happen next.

Celebrity

In which I say whatever inane thing is on the tip of my tongue

Monday morning, about ten past seven. I was getting dressed ready for work when K shouted. I went to the top of the stairs, and she came the bottom.

“David Bowie’s died!”

“What!?”

“It was just on the radio. He was 69.”

“That was the age my grandparents died at,” was the random stupid thing that came out of my mouth. It’s only true for 50% of my grandparents, too. It feels strangely young, for 2016, for someone to die in their 60s, especially someone who felt like a force for foreverness. “The Man Who Sold The World” has been stuck in my head for most of the past two days.

Tuesday: the weather has turned colder, but still no frost on the ground here. No frost at all this winter so far, in fact. The Child Who Likes Fairies has taken to asking to have a grey headscarf draped over her head so she can run around wearing it, looking like a ghost as she does so. I’m not sure she knows, though, that she looks like a ghost.