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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘funerals’

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.

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.

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.

Entrousered

In which I visit my tailor

Today was: funeral outfit shopping day. I don’t have anything suitable for funeral-wearing at all in the wardrobe; the only time I ever wear suits is for job interviews, and my job interview suit isn’t exactly funereal enough for the occasion. So, down to Debenhams on my lunchbreak to find something that vaguely fits me.

I found a pair of trousers of the right length, after trying what seemed like an excessive number of pairs. I found a few pairs of trousers of the right waist. Of course, the ones that were the right length weren’t among them: the ones that fitted my waist were either just that bit too long or just that bit too short to really suit. “Don’t bother ordering the right ones,” said the shop assistant, “they won’t get here in time if you need them for next week. Buy the long ones with the right waist and go to the tailor’s round the corner.” So I bought the trousers, and headed round a corner and down an alleyway to find that squeezed between a decent unisex hairdresser and a sex shop is: a tailor’s shop. Either I’ve never noticed it before, or it’s one of those shops that just appears by magic at just the right time to aid the protagonist in their quest. It’s a traditional sort of place, with no concessions to show, to ornament, to tidyness, just a big workbench, a cash register, and racks and racks of clothes being worked on. I go in, put the trousers on, the tailor pins them to the right length and says “when are you coming in to collect them?” He didn’t take my name, my number, my email address, just gave me a card with a number on it and a promise they would be done in plenty of time.

Fun

Well that can't be good news

I don’t know on what basis Google Ads is categorising me, but it’s started showing me frequent ads for funeral directors.

Bones

In which we know where the bodies aren’t buried

Archaeology news story of the week: British pagans have decided that archaeologist should hand prehistoric skeletons over to them for reburial. Which is, of course, a silly idea, and one that a lot of archaeologists have a problem with.

Archaeologists naturally tend towards conservation. It’s something that’s drummed into them all through their training: you can only dig something up the once, so once you have it in your hands you have to look after it. You store it away carefully, because you never know when you’ve managed to extract all possible information from it. That’s why throwing something away – and that’s what reburial amounts to in many ways – is anathema to an archaeologist. To most practical archaeologists, artefacts like skeletons are a bit of a nuisance. If you’re in the field, they lead to lots and lots of paperwork.* If you’re back at the lab, you have to look after them – artefact aftercare ends up costing about ten times as much as your average dig does, at the least.** But you still have to look after them, because otherwise you’re not really an archaeologist.

A pagan quoted in that article says:

Any story that is reconstructed from [prehistoric skeletons] will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past

Which is, indeed, true. But it’s also true of modern pagan religions, to be fair. Modern paganism is an entirely modern religion. It draws influences from prehistoric religions, but so do other modern-day religions such as Mormonism. There’s very little direct link between any religion today and any European religion of three thousand years ago, so any claim of continuity is rather suspect. For one thing, there’s a huge variety of religious practise in British prehistory, which suggests that religions changed in nature over time then just as they do now. At some times people were buried in graves as they are now; at some times they were buried, or exposed, and then their skeletons were taken apart and stacked up somewhere.*** At some times, they were cremated. Sometimes they were buried in a “partially articulated” state – which means the body was still meaty enough for some of the major joints to hold together, but rotten enough for some big bits to have dropped off. In East Yorkshire, rich people were buried in chariots; which just goes to show that people from East Yorkshire have always been slightly strange.****

Which of those different types of burial represents different religions? It’s hard to say, because religion doesn’t always determine burial type. Which of them represents any of the various strands of modern paganism? None of the above. There’s no reason why remains shouldn’t be treated with respect; but equally there’s no reason why any modern religion should claim to have responsibility over them.

* especially for skeletons, because there’s all sorts of legal paperwork to fill in to prove you didn’t just bury the body the other week.

** and digs are bloody expensive

*** this, with burial, is more or less what happened from medieval times through to the 18th century; it was only after that that people started to see the grave as “eternal rest”.

**** no, really, the Iron Age archaeology of East Yorkshire really is rather distinct, and different to anywhere else in the whole of Britain.

Recycle

In which we look at the concept of eternal rest

In the news recently: the government is making moves to reuse old burial plots, to deal with the problem of overcrowded graveyards. People are, naturally, a bit shocked at the idea of disturbing one’s eternal rest, especially given the synchronicity between this news and the reburial of Gladys Hammond.

However – and I bet you could tell I was about to say this – the idea that the grave represents your eternal rest is a relatively new one, dating from the late 18th century. It’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that all the world’s great cemetaries were opened – Old Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed around David Hume’s mausoleum; Highgate; Kensal Green; Père Lachaise; the Glasgow Necropolis. Prior to that, the grave was normally a temporary place of rest, unless you were an important person.* After noone around could remember you, up came your skeleton, to go into the local charnel house.** In The Name Of The Rose, set in the 14th century, a charnel house (of sorts) plays an important part in the plot.*** The most famous example, nowadays, is probably the ossuary near the Czech town of Kutná Hora.

All this seemed to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people started to think of the grave as the eternal resting place. Possibly this was connected with the rise of rationalism – people started to care a lot more about the treatment of the body after death, when previously they’d been confident that the treatment of the soul was more important. It led, in turn, to the modern funeral industry, described by Jessica Mitford in The American Way Of Death**** and Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. The body has become the overriding focus of funeral rituals, and we forget that only a couple of hundred years ago, exhuming the skeleton and reusing the grave was the normal way of life and death.

* If you were important enough to be a saint, of course, bits of your body could end up all over the place.

** Somewhere I have a book of traditional English folk-tales, in which the parish charnel house often plays an important part – persuading someone to go inside at the dead of night, with someone in there already pretending to be a ghost, and that sort of thing.

*** Spoiler: it’s also a secret passageway (highlight to reveal).

**** Originally published in the 1960s, but with a sequel written in the 1990s.

This aye night

In which we want to snuggle up by the fire

The changing of the clocks has left me feeling a little tired and disorientated. It’s not surprising that there are more car accidents in this week, as people adjust to the shift.

Driving home just now,* in the dark and heavy blattering rain, I wanted to be warm and cosied up in bed. Driving in the rain at night always makes me wonder what it must have been like to live before electric heating and lights. It also makes me think of the Lyke Wake Dirge – for no apparent reason, because there’s nothing to connect the Dirge with bad weather. It’s a very evocative text, though.

This aye night, this aye night,
Every night and all,
Fire and fleet and candle-light
And Christ take up thy soul

* Not from work – it’s gone 10pm. I don’t work that late.