Friday, 12 November 2010

Funerals

This is autobiography

Funerals are organised - and sometimes paid for - by the living, who also have to experience them. It is better that the dead do not interfere.

It's possible to dispose of a body without a funeral: you send it to the crematorium and they burn it. No one has to take a day off work.

It seems a bit harsh, though there was a time when it might have attracted me: the teenage time when The Mayor of Casterbridge allowed me to indulge maudlin grief to the full.

Most likely, my children will have to decide whether to give me a funeral and, if so, of what kind. I very much hope they will have my body cremated and I do not want any religious officiation. Otherwise, it's up to them how they use the time they will be allocated.

I haven't attended many funerals and have only taken full responsibility for one, my mother's. My mother believed in God, so I invited a C of E clergyman to officiate, even though for stretches of her life she felt herself too wicked to attend church. She read the Bible privately at home.

I was grateful to the clergyman, who did a sensitive job. I have attended other funerals where you feel sorry for those grieving as you listen to the jobbing cleric make a hash of things, reading from crib notes about someone he never met. Far better to do it yourself.

I spoke at my mother's funeral, addressing the five people in attendance (including the cleric). It is one of the things in my life that I am really glad I did. I am surprised I managed it. Outside the crematorium chapel, I had seen the approaching single and unaccompanied hearse, which I had ordered, and it had been too much for me.

My mother died within a few weeks of being taken seriously ill. It was an unpleasant death (Carcinoma pancreas), only relieved by moments of morphine-induced animation. I sought desperately to focus her on happy and redeeming moments of a very unhappy life and when I spoke at the funeral it was also to foreground a few things of which she had been proud.

A few months beforehand, she had her final nervous breakdown - on New Year's Day 1978, depressed and suicidal, she ordered a taxi and presented herself at the gates of an old-fashioned asylum (Bexley Mental Hospital). They telephoned me. I was 31. She was 70.

Fourteen years had passed since her last major breakdown, which rendered her unable to walk or speak. You could call it catatonic depression or, simply, melancholia. On Boxing Day 1964, it was me who telephoned for an ambulance and who sat in the back with her as it took her to Bexley. She stayed there for months and for ECT. In 1978, they refrained from the ECT.

Nowadays, parents often live to an age when their children have resolved the difficulties they have created for them and where they can feel that the parents have had their life and it is right that they should die.

But when you talk to people who have lost a parent or a partner, it is clear that the expectation of someone's death is always not quite real. Death is not meant to happen this week, when you are not quite ready.


A funeral is one of the ways we deal with the fact of not having been quite ready for a death.

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