Ernie, Farewell

It was standing room only by the time we made it inside the crematorium chapel. We arrived quite early, there were just a few of us. Then more and more people began to arrive. There were hugs as we met old friends. So great to see Fred and Albert, who retired some years ago, Kevin, John, Marcio who I still work with regularly. The sun shone. Could it have been a more beautiful day?
But a day that was going to be hard for Paul, Ernie’s partner of nearly 60 years. When you think what attitudes to gay people were like when they met, you have to wonder what they went through. Paul is Irish and Catholic (that maybe was, as the service was led by an Anglican member of the clergy, a woman who knew both of them). Although the Irish Republic is today showing a more enlightened attitude to sexuality, so much so that Graham Norton, probably the Republic’s most famous gay export, has wondered if had the current climate prevailed when he was younger might he have stayed in his home country, traditionally homosexuality has been a particularly big taboo.
It’s weird isn’t it, the way people get so het up about homosexuality. I had a Christian upbringing. The main message was to love one another. I don’t recall sub-clauses about certain sexual orientation meant that edict shouldn’t apply.
Levititcus seems to be the favourite anti-gay quote for some homophobic Christians, but they seem quite able to ignore other instructions from the OT about behaviour. Continue reading

There Will Be Tears

There is nothing pleasant about seeing a ninety-six year old man in tears at his wife’s funeral. Uncle Bill bore up well, and showed evident pleasure greeting his various nieces and nephews outside the crematorium. The service, conducted by my cousin Tom, was kept light at Uncle Bill’s request, and it was good to see him nodding and smiling, laughing at one point, as Tom reminded us of happier times. The tears came afterwards, when we gathered to have tea and sandwiches and Uncle Bill was assailed by a stream of people offering condolences.

I’m glad to say he smiled again, and we made plans to meet in the summer (we being as many of the clan as can be assembled at one time) with photos to share, pencils to annotate, and memories to swap. His younger son, the one who lives in Melbourne, looks so like his father it’s a bit like time travel. He goes home tonight, so the jet lag he’s just getting over will be overlaid by the next long haul flights. But it was good to see him by his father’s side, and I’m sure he’d vote it worth the discomfort. Both sons are supportive, and the family is close. They are concerned for Uncle Bill, but while he mourns the loss of a wife, they have lost their mother, their children have lost their grandmother. That’s never easy, no matter how old you are. So mutual support all round will, I trust, be the order of the day. There are bound to be more tears, more moments of dislocation and aching loss, and that’s right too. Continue reading

A Different Death

As it turned out, by the end of yesterday evening it wasn’t Cat’s life and death I was thinking about, but my Aunt Ella’s. I got the call around 10.30 to say she had died earlier in the evening. An expected death, but not expected quite this soon. Tonight I spoke to her husband, my Uncle Bill, Mother’s favourite sibling and the last one surviving. He’ll be 97 in the autumn. I don’t know how old Aunt Ella was, but I’m guessing around the same.
We spoke the other night after I had spent some time over the weekend with his daughter-in-law who was in London for a few days. It was she who told me Ella had widespread cancer and the doctors were talking about weeks, at the most, months. Yesterday afternoon I sent this picture to her of her then infant husband with his mother Ella.

Mother and Son

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The Funeral

Of course the person I really want to talk it over with is Aunt. And in a way I am, but it is a rather one-sided conversation where I ask if she was pleased with how it went, and hope the silence is an approving one.

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the day of the funeral


The sun shone, the skies were blue, the church was full of light. Her coffin of seagrass looked lovely. Too big, but lovely. Such a little body inside. The florists had done a perfect job with the flowers; subtle pastel colours; roses, hyacinths and tulips, with bunches of dried lavender tied to the sides of the coffin and her pale blue sun hat sitting on the top.
Beautiful coffin

Beautiful coffin


The church was full. There were regular members of the congregation, neighbours, friends from further away, family. My cousin Tom gave the tribute for the family and his emotions nearly got the better of him. Tissues were being passed along rows. He remembered to give Linda a special mention, though he played fast and loose with the number of Aunt’s siblings and the age gap between Aunt and Mother.

But it was Aunt’s special friend, Margaret, who made the service so memorable. She is 93, has leukaemia, has had leukaemia for some years. A tiny frail woman with an energy that seems to belong to someone else. She and Aunt became friends the first time Aunt attended the church. Margaret was a missionary in Africa, but hails originally from Armagh. She was astounding; funny, warm, witty and full of love for Aunt and gratitude for their friendship. When she signed off, looking down at the coffin and saying “see you soon,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. If she had a fan club we’d all be paid up members now. She wasn’t coming to the cemetery for the burial, and couldn’t stay for the ‘substantial’ refreshments specified in Aunt’s will, so she was all but mobbed by the family outside the church, and the minister who had gone ahead must have been wondering what was keeping us. Continue reading

Reflections

They say a week is a long time in politics. I say a week can be a long time in anything. This time last week I was enjoying being warm and dry after a walk in heavy rain; my Aunt Nessa was still alive; I was scraping up some work and had tickets to the theatre on Thursday and to a literary event on Friday.

Obviously I should not have chosen for my aunt to die, and I should have liked to go to both the theatre and the literary event, but it was nice to be in the bosom of my family for twenty-four hours; to lean against the work surface in the kitchen at Cousin’s and chew the fat; tell stories; marvel at Fido’s successful campaign to make himself persona grata in the kitchen and small sitting room; cuddle Westie Boy; and hear Mother’s voice in the local accents.

After the funeral we adjourned to the adjoining café. It is called Reflections. It is the first time I have been to a crematorium with a café on site. What a good idea. No hiatus between service and story swapping; no getting lost trying to follow directions in unfamiliar territory; and surprisingly good coffee. Knowing I should not be home until late, I broke my no coffee after midday rule, and I am glad that I did.

I think I may have said before that talking in my family is a competitive sport. Aunt Nessa’s wasn’t the last funeral of the day, but we were the last out of the café. It had to be. At least ten of us present were blood relatives. There were six first cousins for starters. Or rather nine. But six of us are first cousins with each other, then the other three with each other as well as being first cousins once removed with uncle Bill, and second cousins with the six first cousins, if you follow, and I shall quite understand if you don’t.
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Nessa

It wasn’t a grand funeral; half an hour in a crematorium chapel doesn’t really allow grandeur. But it was a good one. My cousin Tom took the service, and there was a warm and humorous tribute from two family members.

I was pleased that her beloved cat Jan got a mention, but sorry he didn’t get his picture in the order of service. I think she would have liked that. His handsome face on the back; she in her graduation gown on the front.

I knew she had studied English literature at Queen’s, but it was news to me that her degree was also in classics and philosophy. She was the only one of Mother’s siblings to be allowed to stay on at school after the age of fourteen, let alone contemplate continuing to higher education.

Small compensation perhaps for the fact that her father never bothered to see her. My grandmother died shortly after she was born. Just days old, she was taken from the hospital by a maternal aunt to be brought up with her cousins. Her father never laid eyes on her, never visited, never made contact. Continue reading

Death, Here Is Thy Sting

On Sunday there’s a memorial service for Caroline. She died just before Christmas last year and I still keep expecting to see her in Marks and Spencer somewhere near the veg counter.
It’s been a year of deaths.
My dear friend Maria lost her mother recently. Afterwards she wrote to me: “The funeral was very much like her. We all felt it matched her life perfectly. So we were all comforted by it.
And the funeral brought to us all her friends and all our friends and, thus, we were, and are, surrounded and supported by their love and by the different aspects of her personality they unfold before us.
I feel grateful to have had her as a mother and as a lifelong honest, generous and loyal companion.”
A good funeral then, but I can’t read Maria’s words without welling up. That awful disorientating period of adjusting has begun. There is no way back.
My friend Celia also lost her mother. For some weeks we had the dying mothers conversation, and Celia’s Mother was the one identified as being on the road with no return, with Mother merely frail in second place. Then Mother suddenly accelerated, sped into the fast lane and died first. Celia was, by chance, one of the last people I spoke to in London before heading East for those final days. Continue reading

Went the Day Well?

I think it went well. Uncle Bill said he liked the tribute. Everyone liked and admired Uncle Bill. Aged 92, with all his faculties, he told stories about his and Mum’s exploits. He also admitted to fighting Aunt when she was still so tiny she had the fat wrists of babyhood. She smiled beside him and forgave him.
Nephew did the reading with sensitivity and feeling. Corinthians 1 13, verse 4 to the end.
Other Nephew started to rush the poem, but the words caught and held him, so he slowed to their rhythm, and his voice suddenly choked and faltered, and the raw emotion of his feelings crackled in the air.
Mother’s coffin was good. Her flowers were beautiful. People cried, smiled, looked serious.
I hope we did well by her. Being part of the service makes it harder to judge how the whole thing went. I had expected the shorter service at the crematorium to be less powerful, but it brought me up with a jolt. This was goodbye. Her ashes will be delivered to the nice undertaker tomorrow.
At St Pancras, on the way home, after a day in the bosom of my family, I suddenly felt naked and alone.

The Eve of the Funeral

A lovely message tonight from my cousin Helen about my mother and hers. He mother is Aunt Kath best of aunts, who I have blogged about before. They were travelling from Gozo, where they live, to Malta, to get Aunt Kath, now ninety-seven, fitted with hearing aids. Aunt Kath was very concerned about the traffic jam, and they could not get her to understand they were on the ferry. On the way back, fitted with the hearing aids, she understood why she was surrounded by stationary cars.
Dad’s cousin would love to come to the funeral but her husband has dementia and she cannot leave him. My outfit has been approved by my friend Carol. When I told her Mum had died and when the funeral was, her first words were, “Well, you’ll need a haircut.”
MasterB is up close and personal. He seems to have discovered lap sitting about twelve years earlier in his life than Cat did.
I read my tribute to Mum over the ‘phone to a friend and she cried. Is that good or bad?
By this time tomorrow Mum will be cremated. The mourners will have dispersed. For some, maybe most, it will be over, but for her closest family, a new era begins without her. That’s when it gets hard. I hope some of her terrier spirit is in me. I think I’ll need it.

Farewell Caroline

Back at the house, we ordered take-away pizza. By we, I mean O. I am not long home after the funeral. It was great. As a send-off to the afterlife, you couldn’t wish for more.
The wicker coffin and the flowers were beautiful. That was the moment when I think I really began to comprehend that Caroline is dead. This is it. There will be no more random meetings in local shops; no more exchanged texts or gifts of squash. Caroline is dead. But. The crematorium is a distance away. O had first organised a fleet of limousines and then, in an inspired and radical moment hired a Routemaster instead. We traveled in style behind the hearse. The front of the bus said “Goodbye Caroline”. In the two hundred history of Albin’s this was their first Routemaster cortège. They took photographs. For once, I didn’t.

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