Two men, both larger than life, both on the very left of the political spectrum, have recently died in the UK. I briefly met one of them during a one day conference; being there as the hired help (I was one of the interpreters), this ardent socialist and defender of the common (wo)man, ignored both me and my colleague comprehensively. We had both been looking forward to meeting him and telling him how much we admired him. Ah well, ‘handsome is as handsome does’.
Both these men made many enemies during their careers; it is amusing to watch those, who thoroughly disliked them and all they stood for, now scraping and dredging for the most fulsome praise. And all with a straight face.
But I was going to talk about funerals, one of which I attended and the other I was told about.
Kelly’s dad recently died. He and Kelly’s mum had been divorced for many years. Apparently they couldn't live together and couldn’t live apart. He visited his ex frequently and the eight children of the marriage continued to get on well with him in spite of the fact that he had been busy fathering another four with a new partner, whom he never married. None of this is my business, you will quite justifiably say, but Kelly was perfectly frank about her father's busy life, which he pursued happily despite his many ‘aliments’.
The funeral brought the two families together. It must have been quite a rumbustious affair. The second family overthrew all the funeral arrangements the two lots of children had initially agreed on, including changing the venue from a 'large catholic church to a paupers’ church’. “We’d given them money for half the costs but we took it all back again”, Kelly said, “we were really disgusted with what they did." She is a member of a large gypsy clan to whom appropriate funeral rituals are very important. “We did manage to give him his rosary beads and my sisters put a few ‘trinkels' in the coffin before it was closed”, she added.
The other funeral was here at Valley’s End. It was a short, matter-of-fact service, only two hymns were sung and even the eulogy was lifeless and dry. The deceased was “a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all”; and “did everything he undertook to perfection". The mourners heard it and made up their own minds about the kind of man who could be found behind these statements. There was a moment at the graveside which made up for the bland service: a bugler from the British Legion played the Last Post, while a comrade lowered the flag, in a brief, moving salute. The deceased had requested that this be done. Perhaps he had made all the funeral arrangements himself, which would account for the nature of the service. Valley’s End is usually so good at funerals.
All the funerals I’ve ever attended had one thing in common: a jolly bun fight afterwards. I am often surprised at the excellent appetite and thirst the mourners display and once you’ve paid your respects to the immediate family, you are free to mix and mingle and chat and gossip. Loud laughter is never frowned upon; perhaps the relief at 'it not being me this time' is something to do with it? Only on one occasion have I been present when the deceased actually was the centre of attention after the funeral, but that was a party nobody who was there will ever forget. On that occasion the eulogies went on and on and all the good things said were true.
In “The Open Grave”, by Louise Elisabeth Glück, the mortuary phrase is repeated as a framing cadence.
My mother made my need,
my father my conscience.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.
Therefore it will cost me
bitterly to lie,
to prostrate myself
at the edge of a grave.
I say to the earth
“be kind to my mother,
now and later.
Save, with your coldness,
the beauty we all envied.”
I became an old woman.
I welcomed the dark
I used so to fear.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.