By Parson Thru
Funerals. Bittersweet. Depends on the circumstance, I suppose.
We’re going through the passing of a lot of people right now. A big family. It’s the pay-off. All those aunties and uncles, cousins. All that fun, fighting, scandal and gossip. The stories of people long-gone. Then the story-tellers start to go, one-by-one.
It’s a phase of life.
Burning deep and hot in the midst of it all are the tragedies. Knife-wounds arbitrarily inflicted on ordinary people. Random acts of vandalism upon innocent lives.
My auntie reached eighty-two. A good age for a chain-smoker. She always had been. Cigarette, pot of tea. Energy enough to talk forever and never sleep. That was her. Eventually the body just takes on too many opponents. Too many battles to fight.
I drove up the two-hundred-odd miles after work the night before the funeral. The M32 had been blocked, so I detoured out via the A4 to Avonmouth. I later found they’d closed the motorway because a lorry rolled onto a car, crushing the woman driver in her seat where she died.
My dad’s old car’s still hanging together. Large parts of it stuck with Evo-Stick. Still good for a steady eighty for four hours at a time.
When I arrived at my mother’s, late, the family bickering had already begun. Who was picking whom up and who was in what funeral-car. I tried to close my ears and poured a drink. I learned that I’d be a pall-bearer. I shrugged. Family traditions. I loved my aunt though. It seemed ok.
Morning came and the temperature had plummeted. I walked out to the car, ice underfoot and the school-run gearing up. As I looked into the dark sky, snow began swirling in the wind. Pretty soon the road was being covered. Not great. Not for a burial, not for the drive back home. Severe weather warnings had been issued promising an eventful journey back south.
I brushed the snow off the car and eased into the traffic to collect my daughter from across town. Everything had to run like clockwork so I could get back to pick up my mam and my last surviving auntie. We were expected a few streets away by 9.15. The hearse would arrive around 9.30 for a ten o’clock mass.
We all made it to the house on time, steadying my mam and auntie up the drive and into the kitchen. I’d barely set foot in the place since childhood, such are the schisms of family. It had once been a second home. There were glasses of lager on the table already. I’d breakfasted on orange squash and corn flakes. The hearse arrived on time.
The funeral mass is a sadly familiar routine these days. It wasn’t a full requiem mass. She wasn’t too religious anyway. I used to attend as a kid with my other aunt and one who’d died years before. The Church hadn’t really taken to me. I remember my dad and the priest having a row in the living-room when I was four. That was me done as far as the Pope was concerned.
I knew enough to kneel, stand, sing and sit when required – give the responses. I took it up again when I lived in London. The church in Forest Gate was linked to a village in Ghana, from where many of the congregation came. I sacked it in the end. Today, no crossing or dipping in the Holy Water. I’m not allowed Communion, but this time I declined a blessing from the priest, too. How could I accept it now?
Three of us stood in the pew: me, my daughter and my son, who’d turned up unexpectedly at St. Joseph’s on his way to work. It was good to see him. Good to be with them both. I felt proud. A little family within a family within a bigger family. My mam was with her surviving brother and sister –the last of eleven siblings –at the front.
I watched the coffin being fussed around by the priest and thought of all the deaths. All those lives. This family. The world. The never-ending turn of the wheel. It occurred to me for the first time that I have no fear of death. Fear of loss, fear of the things I might never do, fear of the manner of my end, perhaps – but of death itself, no fear. It’s fine.
Pall-bearing turned out to be something of a token-gesture. The coffin was raised off the trestles and turned around to travel out feet-first. We took it from the bearers and raised it on our shoulders – me at the front, being the shortest. We bore my auntie out of the church and brought her to the hearse, where we slid her onto rails. To my surprise, it felt good sharing the burden with my cousins – one of them her son.
My daughter and I stole a march on the cortege to deliver my own son to work en route to the cemetery. We just about made it in time for the burial. I drove the little Fiesta at a decent speed through the gates and along the rows of graves. We looked around and saw cars parked right across the other side. I’m not sure what the speed limit is in there, but we needed to haul ass. I missed an uncle’s interment once thinking he was being done at the crem. I didn’t want to miss this one.
We made it just in time and joined the others around the hole. Another cousin gave us all roses to throw on top of the coffin – nice touch. There’s something satisfying about a burial. It’s much more than just a disposal.
My daughter told me my mam wanted to go and see my brother’s grave whilst we were close by. My dad’s ashes are also there. The wind was bitter and my mam’s seventy-nine – I initially thought we should come back in the spring, but something changed my mind.
In the end, six of us wandered off among the rows of stones as the cortege made its way to the gate. I hadn’t been to visit for a couple of years – how the time flies. None of us could remember where the grave was. The long rows of stones all look similar.
The little group eventually separated, searching among the sorry memorials. My younger cousin, born only weeks before my brother, insisted that he wanted to find the place. He’d never been, though his dad was only fifty yards away. I sensed a rapprochement in the years of family feuding. We’d all played together as kids. He seemed deeply moved.
We worked out where our nanna and granddad were and roughly knew the location of my brother and dad from there. My cousin’s dad was on a fairly straight line across from us. I tried to re-trace where my mam, dad and I used to walk to pick up a watering can and bin the old flowers. Pretty soon I saw the grave of an old family friend that I knew was close by. There, two rows behind, was my brother, b. 1967, d. 1992.
I shouted the others over. They brought my mam. We huddled in front of the grave and my cousin took a poppy he’d been carrying in his pocket since Remembrance Day and placed it in the vase. “What an awful waste”, he said sadly. I knew he meant it. We stood and missed my brother for a moment – I don’t think we’ve ever been so close. Another cousin brought over a posy he’d found under a bush and laid it on the plinth of the headstone. My mam joked about whose name was going on next.
The wake was a jolly affair – as they ought to be. The dead properly seen to, respects paid, prayers said. Laid to rest. A wake is all about living – catching up with relatives, friends. I chatted with my uncle for a while and smiled as people paid complements to my pretty daughter. She’s much more than that, of course – they both are. The room buzzed with conversation. We’re not a bad lot for all our faults.
My daughter and I cut out fairly early. I had a long drive south ahead. I dropped her at her house and wished her well with her travels. I thought I caught a look of affection as we both turned and smiled. Time heals.
On my way out of town, I called in on a life-long friend. She recently lost her young son. I knocked on the door and an upstairs window opened. She was washing her hair. She came down wrapped in a towel, let me in and told me to make the tea.
We sat and chatted for a couple of hours as dusk fell. There’s no pain like that of a mother’s loss. There’s nothing harder than watching someone you love go through that. I tried to give words of comfort, but they are only ever words. Time alone can heal.
She was looking much better than only a few weeks before. The light had come back to her eyes. I recognised the brightness and compassion that I’d fallen in love with as a teenager.
We had a last coffee for the road and said goodbye. Rush-hour traffic was building as I eased onto the A64 heading west, then south along the A1. Rain began to lash against the screen and the wind picked up. By the midlands, a storm was buffeting the car. I settled in and slipped a CD into the player.
In time, tiredness had me blinking and shaking my head to stay focused. Outside of the interminable road-works I was touching eighty most of the way, swinging into the outside lane to keep momentum going.
I passed the sign for Tamworth services – half way. The wipers pushed water aside. A south-westerly pushed against me.
Somewhere in the blackness of Gloucestershire, a great gust hit the car from the side. I’d been dreaming – flipping thoughts. It was like a blast from an unseen explosion, knocking the car sideways in the rain. I swear I felt it come right through the door. A light like a thunderbolt shot past my eyes – all over in a split second. I hung onto the wheel for the next gust, but it never came.
Tail-lights glowed in front. Headlights were bright in the mirror – those blue dazzling ones. I pushed down on the accelerator again.
I can’t think where the gust came from. The storm was pushing against me – still south-westerly. Maybe it was just a restless spirit.
I tried in vain to recall where my reverie had taken me before it happened. Instead I focused on the white lines streaming by – on the cats’-eyes reaching out ahead. Squalls of rain blurred the screen and I moved the wiper control up a notch.
A car, hazards flashing, sat marooned in the gloom of the hard-shoulder. Sorry, mate. There but for the grace of God…