One of the aspects of living through a global pandemic is that you experience a few ‘firsts’, such as city streets clear of traffic, skies empty of aeroplanes and their vapour trails, the air we breathe noticeably cleaner, and queuing for even the simplest of items. The hairdresser at the top of our road, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has been occupied cuckoo-like by a greengrocer; the chairs, mirrors and other paraphernalia remain. We hadn’t done ‘hot yoga’ online before and the little fan heater hasn’t really produced the 40°C heat we are used to. And as all of us, we have had to get used to strangers seeing what’s behind us as we practise – for us, as the laptop is perched on the dining room table, the fridge freezer with its attendant magnets form the backdrop!!
I queued at our local Post Office Depot yesterday to collect a parcel. The sun was out and it was warm. When you queue with ‘social distancing’ you invariably look on the others in the queue with suspicion, imagining they’re Covid 19 carriers. In pre-pandemic days I would probably have passed the time in idle conversation with those in front or behind; not now!
At lunchtime on Tuesday we were, and I struggle to find the right verb here, part of a funeral service at Mortlake Crematorium, except of course numbers were limited to immediate family and we were attending virtually. I have to say it was very strange, being rather like a spy on the wall, the camera showing us the scene an owl might have seen from the rafters, and there was no acknowledgement from the funeral celebrant of our out-of-crematorium online existence!!
Normally of course going to a funeral service requires a degree of thought as to what to wear, getting the right balance between being too Victorian and all in black or too colourful and offending other attendees. Given that no one else was going to see us, you might have thought we could have stayed in our PJs ….. but it was taking place after our 90 minutes strenuous yoga and shower, so a proper shirt and blazer seemed to be a brief nod to the solemnity of the occasion; the light green shorts were not in view!
The other thing that was odd was a lack of input into the other senses, the ones you take for granted when you walk into a chapel – a slight coolness maybe, smells of age and of dust and of sorrow and of sadness, and the sounds of silence, of noises outside the building intruding into the inner space. You could see the family mourners and the celebrant and the bier where the coffin would rest on its arrival ….. but the sound was turned off right up until the start-time so you couldn’t hear anything! Very weird!
David’s wicker casket arrived, the celebrant took us through the service, we listened to a poem read jointly by his sons, to the eulogy from his Godson and then sang Jerusalem. You might think I would know the words, and I can get 70% of them, but I needed to Google the lyrics to get really stuck in, for no one had thought to provide an online service sheet. Good to have an iPad handy!
The ‘Virtual Wake’ was more difficult, so we simply imagined that those who had been at the crematorium were having a lovely boozy lunch somewhere, social distancing notwithstanding, and raised a glass in David’s memory later in the evening.
Watching the proceedings got me thinking about other funerals I have been to or participated in – Monkey Mind invariably gets in the way here, despite trying to concentrate on the events from our pitch up on the rafters!
I think my first funeral was actually the worst to handle. During my Army days in Germany, one summer we were at the Bergan-Hohne NATO training grounds north of Hannover. Work hard, play hard was our motto and when we weren’t out on the ranges practising our art, we were propping up a bar somewhere. Two officers went off to a party at the local Officers’ Mess’ and, on the way back, their car left the road and impacted a large concrete culvert. Major Dick Jones, married to Hazel with three children, was in the passenger seat and died instantly; the driver climbed out unharmed. It was decided the funeral service would be in the nearest Garrison Church. As the senior Lieutenant I was added to the pallbearers’ list of his fellow Majors. I remember we practised with a filing cabinet full of sandbags and that dug into our shoulders. Fortunately the coffin was easier.
My nephew Hugh’s brother died of cancer aged 18 and his death came four days after my Mother’s. Attending two close family funerals within a fortnight freezes that period in a dark part of my memory. But my mother had lived her ‘four score years’ and some, as had both my father and my step-father, so their departures were more easily assimilated. Celina’s father Carlos also made those years (See PC 60) so the sadness is coloured by the celebration of a life well lived. All were cremated. For William the dice had rolled badly.
I have only attended four burial services. One was of my chum Alwin’s sister-in-law (see PC 22 October 2014). It fittingly rained, was a cool cloudy morning and the little village churchyard a very sombre place, made more so when I remember Victoria was only 60. The other concerned one of my daughter Jade’s uncles, Justin. With his wife Sue they suffered the heartache of the death of their first child Claire after six weeks. The only thing I remember about the funeral service was the sight of the baby’s coffin, and thinking about it now brings an ache to my heart that is as deep today as it was some forty years ago.
Richard 26th June 2020