steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Three funerals and no weeding

Reading a friend's account of a funeral a couple of days ago got me thinking about my own father’s. There were three, really, spread over 10 months. The first, in the chapel of rest at the undertaker’s, was the most intimate: just him and me. The mortician (I want to say embalmer, but that sounds too Egyptian, surely?) had done a good job, which is to say that Dad looked just like himself – or the emaciated version he had become after pneumonia and two years of creeping dementia, the last six months of which turned from creep to gallop. I wanted to kiss him goodbye, but was scared: I’d never seen a dead body before, still less touched one. And was there something morbid about wanting to do it? I was observing myself as usual – an irritating tic, when you want to be fully in the moment and not leave part of yourself standing taking notes.

His stubbly cheek was cold as any stone: Mistress Quickly was right. But under the stubble it was soft, and for some reason I hadn’t been expecting that. I drew back as if I’d kissed a snake.

The second funeral was the official one, at the crematorium. It was a Quaker service – which is to say no service at all, by some standards. I didn’t speak, but my brother (wisely working from notes rather than waiting to be moved by the Spirit) talked well and movingly, as did several others who had known him. I had my children either side of me and was concentrating hard on not crying – because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stop, and they would have been mightily freaked out. The coffin disappeared to Vaughan Williams’ “The New Ghost,” a favourite of his. It’s a strange poem, oddly verbose in places, or at least sounding so when set for piano and baritone. But it’s most moving when at its most garrulous, using a luxurious fourteener to describe a brimming silence:

And for the greatness of their love neither of them could speak.

Funeral parlours will hold onto ashes for a long time. Some of the urns in the place where my dad’s were left had been there for thirty years, they told me, and were still waiting to be picked up. That makes the ten months we waited look like suspicious alacrity. But on an autumn day in 2005 we set off for a piece of Hampshire woodland to scatter him. It was very pretty and dappled – though the M3 was within earshot, ready to waft him back to Kingston and his childhood haunts should the wind carry him that way. We all took turns. I’d been afraid the children might be scared, but not a bit of it – even when a stray gust of wind blew some of the ashes into my daughter’s face it just seemed funny, in the absurd way my father would have laughed at: “Don’t sneeze your Grandpa!” (She laughed, too.) And at least we didn’t have him making us all pose for a photograph afterwards, which was a mercy. We walked to the village pub then, and drank to him in beer and apple juice.

He used to say that he’d like his body to be exposed to the crows and vultures on a Tower of Silence. The Woodland Trust would have frowned on that, for all their love of recycling, but we got as close as we could. His grave grows green; and he is the green that grows there.
Tags: real life
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