Substantial Refreshments

After the burial it was time to head for the hotel for refreshments. I was going to be in the limo for this journey. Philip, the undertaker, said the car would take us wherever we wanted. Within reason, he added after an infinitesimal pause. I looked at him questioningly. The day before, he explained, one woman had asked if it could take her to the coast. Mind you, he added, if you promise my father (the driver of the limo) fish and chips at the end of the journey he’ll take you anywhere.

We settled for the hotel.

A few hours after Aunt died, Older Nephew looked at the will. Aunt had left instruction that *substantial* refreshments should be provided after her burial. This immediately made us want to know what had caused her to make this specification. Annoyingly, she had gone where we could not follow to find out. My cousin Tom, charged with co-ordinating the family in NI to come to the funeral (a task as easy as herding cats), and a clergyman, laughed when I read it to him. *Light* refreshments, he had seen specified often enough, but *substantial*? This was a first.

We speculated that she must have been to a funeral where afterwards the mourners were offered a meagre selection of crisps and a packet of iced gems. Of course, we shall never know what the real reason was. A death sparks lots of questions and topic of conversations you’d like to have with the person who has just died. In my case, being charged with the arrangements, I shouldn’t have minded a little more clarification about what substantial meant. A number of people have suggested it meant quantities of alcohol, but as Aunt drank seldom and little, and the family in Ireland is almost tea total, I didn’t think that was correct.

After much studying of the menus at the local hotel which was to host the post burial part of the day, I asked them if we could swap some things, exclude all egg dishes when they said (in answer to my question) that the eggs they used were not from range birds, made a decision, and then worried about if I had made the right one until last Thursday.

A quick survey of the mourners decided I had, and at the end of the day, when the hotel staff were clearing up around the family who were the only people left, gathered around two tables pushed together and sharing stories, we had the sense to ask for doggy bags.

If I were to do it again, and that’s not likely, I would say no to sandwiches. They were the only part that disappointed. They had been made slightly in advance of our arrival and refrigerated. The result was that they were a bit dry. Otherwise, the food was great, and people tucked in and chatted. Although I obviously knew my family, and some of the friends and neighbours, there were quite a few people there whose names were familiar but whose faces I did not know. I had had the bright idea of asking people to email their memories of Aunt so that these could be included in the Order of Service.

If you caught the whiff of sarcasm in the adjective *bright*, you were spot on. It was a good idea. The end result made me glad I had done it, and lots of people said how much they liked it, but it was a headache getting some people to write more than “she was a good Christian with a lovely smile”. I felt instances of her good Christianity would build a clearer picture. The ex-teacher in me came out, and some people received returned work, where I pressed them for particular memories, rather like the Point Example Explanation pupils need to remember when writing essays. I mean, saying Shakespeare was a good writer and he had a beard won’t get you many marks in the exam, mainly because it says next to nothing about him.

My favourite of all contribution was this, from four of her great nieces and nephews:
“The family went to visit Mary and Anne on Richard’s fifth birthday.
We children were given a Tupperware box full of cut up Swiss roll, and told to go and play in the sun and that there were ducks outside. Off we went down to the river and found the ducks. We watched them for a while while eating the Swiss roll, thinking it was a bit stale. We were called back inside an hour later to find the table covered with cake, and Mary asked us if we had enjoyed feeding the ducks.”

This, from another great nephew, shows a different facet:
“It’s with regret that as an adult I feel I never really got to know Mary. Not because we didn’t connect but because we never really got the time. 
Mary was a very kind, very generous person but she was no pushover. She seemed to be able to get the measure of someone fairly quickly and I was a witness to a flare in her temper only a couple of times. 
Maybe the memory of Mary that I will keep the longest is that of her last days. I was completely astounded by her strength and determination to see out her illness within the comfort of her own home, and without invasive medication. Mary was satisfied she had lived a full life and wouldn’t complain about the pain and discomfort caused by the cancer right to the end. I heard her say there were people worse off than her multiple times, which given the situation seemed ludicrous. 
However, I had huge respect for this courage and it will stay with me as a benchmark and a way of keeping things in perspective in my life as challenges are put in front of me.”

Actually one of the best things about the refreshment stage was how some of the great nieces and nephews present, who do not really know each other and who are now grown up, spent the time chatting and bonding. Emails and telephone numbers were swapped, and they fully intend to meet up socially soon. Aunt would be very pleased.

I went about the room, putting faces to the names I’d seen on emails, identifying the people in the photographs in the order of service, explaining which of my cousins was which and which of Mary’s siblings had been their parent. One woman whose name I didn’t catch said Mary had moved to East Anglia to look after her sister. No, I said that’s not right, she moved to be near her. To look after her, reiterated the woman, standing her ground. That sister was my mother, I said, she was in good health when Mary moved here. Mary needed to look after her, said the woman again, obviously dismissing my statements as wishful thinking. I looked at her and it crossed my mind she might be the woman who Mary disliked, whose visits were a trial to Aunt, and of whom she said, “I don’t know why she comes.”

A bit later I asked someone who she was. It was the woman Aunt disliked. I can understand why. Everyone else was lovely, and it was a joy to meet them all. The time passed in a buzz of conversation and reminiscences.

Another thing that went down well was the bookmark. After my Aunt Kath died in Gozo last year I was sent a copy of a bookmark that been given out at the service. It had a picture of her on one side, with a little biog underneath. On the reverse was a copy of Holman Hunt’s Light of the World because she had a print of it at the top of the stairs, and then a prayer that she had copied out. I’d never seen a funeral bookmark before, and I thought it was a great idea and wanted some for Aunt’s funeral. Then I got cold feet, thinking perhaps I was going over the top, and people would think it tasteless and extravagant, rather as I do when I see hearses go by with huge cushions of flowers spelling out someone’s name, or the football team they supported. But I’m glad I stayed with it, because people loved them. The only thing was, it was laminated and slippery. It fell from the Orders of Service and had to be retrieved from under chairs and elsewhere. People came to ask me for more, and I had to refuse them as the spares were to send to people who couldn’t be there.

My family’s approval was naturally the most important to me, so when one told me she thought I had a future career in this field, her husband said he wanted me to plan his funeral (I’ve agreed to a pre-need meeting when I am next in Ireland), and another who had been a bit sceptical about me being in charge called me Project Manager, it was a substantial relief.

13 thoughts on “Substantial Refreshments

  1. I’ve never heard of funeral book marks either. Sounds like a nice idea. I think a properly printed order of service that shows some thought has been put into it is always really nice, and getting other peoples’ thoughts about Aunt to include was a lovely idea. At least you had plenty of time to do that. Here in Ireland, people are generally buried one, at most two days after they die, which makes it tricky.

    • Absolutely, and the wait between death and funeral here is the only thing that allows such planning. Mind you, with everythjing else I had to do, it didn’t feel like I had plenty of time!
      I think it behoves us to put a selection of photos in an envelope ready for when we die that we should like in the order of service, and the memories have to go in a memorial booklet later. You can understand why the obits of the well known are written years in advance and updated ready for when the time comes.

  2. How marvellous to have a future career via Aunt! I do hope you will put all those memories into a book for the younger generation together with some of your fabulous photos of Aunt.

  3. You’ve agreed to ” a pre-need meeting when I am next in Ireland”!?! Isobel, you truly have embarked upon a new career. It is just a different kind of guiding, isn’t it? Happy to hear it went well and all customers, in both physical and spiritual shape, were pleased.

    • In Ireland funerals happen very quickly after a death. So I think one thing this has taught me is that everyone who wants to personalise an order of service should have photos already stored on a memory stick,preferably already arranged, a number of stories about the not yet deceased, details of their favourite poems/music and whatever, and basically do as the newspapers do, and have everything ready, and update it from time to time.
      In England families increasingly organise the funeral they way they want it to be. In 1991, when my father died, we had far fewer decisions to make, no one from the family stood up and spoke at either the church service or the crematorium. But by the time my mother died in 2013 customs had changed a great deal, and we supervised every aspect of the funeral and took active parts in it.

  4. you did a great job, Isobel. those bookmarks sounds brilliant. and while they were slippery because of the lamination, they will be nice keepsakes for those who have them, and they will keep for a long time.
    and how lovely that your relatives met and found each other, and that they want to stay connected.
    i attended the funeral of the mother of a friend last year, and connected with some people i hadn’t seen in years. i have since been in ‘virtual’ contact with them, and that has been very nice.
    well done! and the turn in your career sounds like it’s a good fit for you! 🙂

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