…said the officiant as he closed at my Dad’s funeral. ‘Life is precious and good’.
Gosh. Wow. Yes. It’s done. Two weeks of mad organising and the day went well, which I suppose is a funny way to describe a funeral. Many more people came than were expected, disparate groups from my Dad’s highly comparmentalised life. Colleagues from when he worked at the legendary LEO computers in the 60s and even a member of King Crimson from his tour manager days in the 70s!
Ma was wonderful. Only I and probably those very, very close to her noticed her wobble a little at the start, but once she got in her stride she told Dad’s life story with warmth, wit and honesty. She even got a laugh out of everyone. A wonderful, rippling guffaw that instantly released everyone in relief and united the groups into one.
I nearly got through my eulogy intact, but when I came to the final paragrap - the one about how even only a year ago, Dad’s eyes would fill with tears when I showed him one of my childhood rainbow-coloured hairslides that he’d gently put in place before school - I cracked. A few deep breaths, though, and I managed to finish. I hurdled the wobble.
The wake was full of his old pub-mates at his favourite watering hole and I learned a lot about Dad that I hadn’t known from his regular decade of Friday nights down the bar. The staff were really cut up and the tears were from them, not us.
It was good. And I did it, which isn’t a lot, I know, but I’m glad I did. Still, I was relieved to get home and finally, finally let the mask slip.
I went to see Dad today, a day late as yesterday ‘he hadn’t arrived, yet’. I’m just about getting used to this funeral-home speak.
I was mentally preparing myself that he might look like a waxwork, after all, he’s been dead two weeks now and I knew he’d be embalmed. I tried to reference the films I’d seen featuring (‘featuring’? Not sure…) dead people: My Girl; Death At A Funeral. Trying to make myself ready for the fact it wouldn’t look like Dad.
We went in. Small coffin with netting stretched over the top. The thing inside didn’t look like my father. White, skin tight around the mouth, nose and eyes, but falling in fat folds around his neck like a frog caught in a wind tunnel. Covered in make-up.
Tears started streaming down my face, but they weren’t tears of sorrow or anger. This was fear. I realised suddenly that I was absolutely petrified. This thing in front of me straddled so eerily the thing between life-simulacra and deadness, that it produced a horror in me at this abomination. I know that’s a strong word, but I couldn’t help but feel the alive’s revulsion at this dead, but alive-through-recognition, thing.
I’m glad my mother was there because I would hate to be left alone with it. I know it sounds stupid and wimpish and disrespectful. Perhaps it’s the cultural inference of horror films, but I kept feeling like he would suddenly open his eyes and sit up. And I was scared.
In fact, I said it. I wept into my mother, saying, ‘I’m scared’ and ‘I don’t like it’. I became a child.
This was not death as echo of recent life - the recently dead relative in a hospital bed or the fatality of a bomb blast, this was…oh dear, Wizard of Oz again…really, most sincerely dead. I suppose, at least, it provides a watershed to that unreality of the concept of his death. I’ve seen it now, he is most certainly dead.
And I suppose in years to come, I may be glad that I did it. Right now, I wish I hadn’t. I’m sure nightmares will follow and I couldn’t help but mourn for my living father and the absolute fear he had of ending up just like he is now: lifeless in a box. This is not what he wanted.
A constant stream of people have been coming and going through the house to offer their condolences. I’m touched and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it really struck me how people who come to see how you are, invariably end up talking about themselves, to the point of interrupting with something verging on mania.
I suppose it’s because people are so uncomfortable with death and don’t know what to say, that they try and compared your situation with their own life, even if they haven’t ever had a bereavement. Every silence is to be filled. What I’ve learned, if I’m ever in the other chair, is simply a listening presence is enough, with perhaps the odd nudging question.
I feel like I’m the one doing the consoling. When I tell people my Dad died, it’s they who burst into tears and I have to comfort them, apologising for the shock I’ve given them. I feel like a big sponge, soaking up all the anger, sadness and frustration dealing with a death brings - from the physical arranging to the metal defusing.
I wrote my eulogy. It struck me that there’s a huge lack of ‘intermediate’ advice on how to write such a thing. For morons beginners, there’s a wealth, from the Co-Op’s ‘Well Chosen Words’, which includes advice as ‘think about the lows of their life, think about the highs. Think about their good points, think about the fun times’ to the naff, cheap and ‘only $12.95’ poems and gaudily printed funeral booklets you can find on the internet. Of course, I’m sure these sites help a lot of people, but for me, there’s very little.
In the end, though, it flowed quite easily. Whether that’s because I’m used to working with words or just because, in some way, I’ve been composing it since the moment I heard he died, I don’t know.
However, in one way, the internet did help. Googling ‘poems for funerals’ reminded us of the very popular Henry Scott Holland ‘poem’ (actually an excerpt from a very profound sermon given after the death of Edward VII) ‘Death Is Nothing At All’. Although Holland was Dean of St. Paul’s, the poem is often used in Humanist services, like the one we’re giving my ‘Darwinian Atheist’ Dad.
It’s a rare example of something that’s popular, even to the point of cliche, but resonates with such humanity and has appeal to pretty much every faith and non-faith. Although the person is gone, we may look for them in all things; from memory or from association.
Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room, I am I, and you are you, Whatever we were to each other, that we are still, Call me by my old familiar name, Speak to me in the same easy way which you always did, Put no difference into your tone; Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effect, without the shadow of a ghost on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is absolutely unbroken continuity, Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am just waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.
My Columbian friend is playing on a Black Metal band’s album. Thinking that his fiery Latin name wouldn’t fit next to the deeply Norweigan and chilling monikers of the band. So he decided he needed his own Black Metal stage name with the right mixture of himself and Satanic overtones.
Coming back to London is always a culture shock, but there are a few things that have really turned my nose today.
- The amount of flesh on display due to the warm weather. Dressed for the beach, a majority of people seem to have added to the old adage, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ with ‘even if you don’t got it, flaunt it. Doubly so’
- A well-know sports shop selling ‘I’m an England groupie’ T-shirts for women. When did being a groupie become something to proudly display? I always considered it an insult and synonym for ‘slut’.
- But my most focused ire is on the Nationwide Building Society. For their latest advertising campaign, they’ve enlisted the ‘Little Britain’ actors to produce such gems as ‘Yeah but no but yeah but no shareholders’. Is this revenge for the Halifax Howard adverts? Is merely a recognised TV brand enough for people to follow blindly into signing up accounts. Would Vicky Pollard even know what a shareholder was? Andy and Lou are also putting their faces to an England football team, where you will receive a bonus if England win the world cup. Not only does this assume the mental ability of savers does not stretch to beyond football, it also blatantly waves a complete no-hope in such a saver’s face. A football fan, I may be, but I have no illusions England have a hope of winning and yet the Nationwide are trying to hoodwink me into thinking they’re offering me a good deal. I suppose to say anything to the contrary would be considered ‘unpatriotic’. Give us your money, or get out.
- Also, the staff at the Nationwide made my Ma cry today when she went into close my Dad’s account by waving forms in her face with tiny print far too small for an older person to read and making her sit in the middle of the branch in front of everyone when she cried. Thankfully after some time, a bank room worker with some compassion took her into an office. But I hate them nonetheless.
I’ve had the entire ‘witch is dead’ sequence from the Wizard of Oz playing over and over in my head. It’s due to my mother, who shares the same dry, downplayed sense of occasion mixed with protective pragmatism I have inherited and which leads many to think of us, mistakenly, as cold or aloof.
It came about as she was telling me about arriving at the hospital after receiving the call about my Dad. After they had told her he had collapsed in Tescos and they had been unable to resuscitate him, they, of course, asked if she would like to see him.
Leading her in, the nurse told her to be prepared as he still had a breathing tube in his mouth. Looking at him on the bed, she saw that distinct yellow waxiness of death on his face, although his chest and ears were engorged with blood. Something to do with oxygen being pumped into the body. But the stillness and the sheen of death were unmistakeable.
'Yes', she whistled through her teeth, 'he really is most sincerely dead'. The nurse looked at her curiously. So did I. 'Is that a quotation from the Wizard of Oz?', I asked. It was. My mind went back to my year six primary school performance of the play, before my first appearance as the Lion, during the munchkin scene. I saw clearly Kate Fowler as the munchkin coroner,
As Coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead
She’s really most, sincerely dead.
I suppose it’s only natural, but this whole experience is becoming very surreal. Sitting in the funeral home talking about embalming, whether he’ll need to be shaved, if the metal stent in his leg makes any difference to the cremation. I’ve caught myself a few times nearly saying, ‘gosh, this is all rather macabre, isn’t it?’, before realising, well yes, it is.
When I was asked whether I’d like to ‘pay my respects’, funeral home speak for seeing the body, before the funeral, I said yes, not really because I felt like I wanted to or didn’t want to, but because I supposed that’s what people do in situations like this. As much as I am wont to sneer at societal norms, they’ve helped me a lot. I continue to feel absolutely numb, even when I sit in his room, surrounding by his books and scrawly-written lists and photographs. If it wasn’t for these little well-worn ruts and rivets to follow: phrases to say, lists to do, phone calls to make, I doubt whether I would move at all.