News of the death of an old acquaintance or colleague reached me last week and raised some uncertainty about whether to go to the funeral or not. “Yes.” I said. “I knew him, once, a long time ago. Sorry to hear that he had a stroke and died.”
Then I was told by email or letter of the funeral arrangements and the name of a charity. Should I go to the funeral? Should I donate to the charity in aid of distressed camels or similar? Or do I do both? Or maybe just let him go, he is certain to be present at his own funeral.
I went to the other side of London. What a journey. Delayed by traffic and an accident, I rushed from the car park to the crematorium chapel hoping to be there before the hearse. Nearly everyone else had been delayed by an even bigger accident and the funerals time-table was being re-arranged. The traffic was flowing again and hearses were queueing up. It is possible to be late for your own funeral.
After a wait, three of my former colleagues turned up and we had a good natter about old times. Eventually we filed into the crematorium chapel behind the other mourners.
Funeral number 1
It soon became clear that this was the wrong funeral. To leave would be impolite and disruptive. We had to sit through it. Aren’t funerals supposed to be sad? This one was sad because nobody was mournful, the mourners sat there, dutiful, bored and unconcerned.
I sat marvelling at how we have arranged this particular bit of life’s theatre. The audience has to wear dark and sombre clothes, like at a classical music concert. They shuffle embarrassed from foot to foot. One or two of the ladies press a clean white hanky to their eyes. Doing this might dislodge a ridiculously large black hat or get their fingers entangled in an unfamiliar veil.
The coffin is born in by pall bearers wearing gloves and dressed in black. Silent, slow-moving men who make their living by being silent, slow and still.
The coffin is the focus of visual attention. Covered in flowers and containing the decaying body of the deceased. He has probably been dead for a month already. Like all containers should be, the coffin is labelled with the contents and just to be sure, the contents are also declaimed in flowers reading ‘Grandpa’ or, to emphasise the common touch, ‘Bruvver’.
How does a funeral work?
But there is collusion amongst the gathering. The really important thing cannot be seen or spoken of. Where is it? Where is the BUTTON? You know it is somewhere near. It and what happens when it is pressed, are the most important things about the event. It is like theatre or opera where you know that the principal boy is played by a girl but you are not supposed to acknowledge it.
The officiating person, often someone who has no knowledge of the deceased but his name, tells you that he did not know him. Then he gives a partially accurate life story culled from a relative the day before. Anything awkward is left out but a skilled eulogist can emphasise the unspeakable by the way he talks around it.
Where is the BUTTON? When will it be pressed? There are interminable prayers. Those unfamiliar with prayer regard them as a period of introspection rather than supplication. The curious begin to listen and wonder. Is there really a life afterwards? What can you do there? Do you turn up as you are, like a ‘come as you are’ party on earth. In that case you may be complete with tubes, cannulas, monitoring equipment and with a gown open down the back.
Reflections on the afterlife
Will your brain be restored, or maybe brains are irrelevant and just the mind restored? Actually they are talking about the soul. What constitutes my soul? Does it have memories, emotions, knowledge, the capacity for freedom of thought?
Perhaps it is a born again thing. The process of growing up again is too painful to contemplate. Best would be to arrive in late adolescence but with the wisdom acquired by 40 years.
What’s happening? Oh no, I missed it; too much daydreaming. She has pressed the send BUTTON and I did not see where it is. Everything is working, like those Victorian automaton toys. The curtains are coming across; the coffin is slowly descending. No, I must suppress thoughts of a drop down box on my computer, this one does not give options. The music starts: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…” We stand and listen to Vera Lynn accompanied by crackles and hiss on the old recording.
We cannot applaud, there will certainly be no encore but everyone agrees that it was a lovely service. They mean the officiating lady showed great sleight of hand and nobody noticed her pressing the BUTTON.
It is now that the theatre of a funeral fails. Is it over? No. You have to go outside and stand around in the rain admiring the fading flowers. A few words of sorrow and concern must be mumbled to the next of kin and you hope to be invited back to the wake. People surreptitiously move off towards their cars.
The military end their funerals in style. There are a few sharp shots over the grave, the muffles are removed from the drums and the snares drawn tight. The reversed arms are shouldered with a snap, snap, snap. The regimental colours are raised. On command, the snare drums rattle into action, the bugles sharp, bright tone joins them and everyone marches off at the quick-quick pace of the light infantry back to barracks for a good party in the mess.
It is time to get on with life and living. Your turn will come soon enough.
The Right One
Eventually I attended the correct funeral. It was a Quaker funeral and made up mostly of silences. Every so often some one spoke a few words of remembrance.
Then we sang Jerusalem and sat with our own thoughts and there was a poem for us to read.
Into the freedom of wind and sunshine
We let you go
Into the dance of the stars and the planets
We let you go
Into the wind’s breath and the hands of the star maker
We let you go
We love you, we miss you, we want you to be happy
Go safely, go dancing, go running home.
I am glad I was there.
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