Funerals

I thought Death and Bereavement would be a suitable next topic in the new gloomy stories series, but to write that one, I have to set a bit of context first.

Not really sure when I first encountered death per se. Probably Great Great Aunt Ellen who was an ancient Victorian relic. I think I saw her once at some family tea party, was ushered over for my brief audience with Queen Victoria Great x 2 Aunt Ellen, and then ushered away again when my childish presence failed to amuse. And at some point she disappeared.

A few great aunts and uncles started to fall by the wayside, but my grandmothers were probably the first close relatives I remember dying. I think I was in my early teens and pre-occupied with my own adolescence so I don’t remember any huge drama or feeling any great sense of loss. Or maybe I just have a poor memory.

Their deaths were accompanied with long grave faces and much officiousness from my parents. It was all very solemn and serious. I felt however, that in attending my first funeral, that of one of my grandmothers – who I had spent a lot of time with, one of them lived with us, both did at one point – I would be marking a rite of passage towards adulthood. It was not to be. My mother said very firmly that funerals were not a place for children and she had no intention of me going. Dejection. So much for growing up. I went back to my metaphorical corner where little girls were seen and not heard.

Needless to state when the second grandmother died a couple of years later, the same story was trotted out. The youngest of my great uncles died and – you’ve guessed it. Not a place for children, even though I was by then at university. His widow died a few years later, actually on the day I was travelling back from my stint as a bridesmaid which some of you will have read about elsewhere. I was 24. There ‘was no need’ apparently, for me to attend my great aunt’s funeral either.

At this point I realised the only funerals I was ever likely to attend were my own, and those of my parents. Assuming they didn’t put a caveat in their wills saying that their funerals were not a place for their little girl.

Salvation came at work. There I was happily bashing away at some story or other when the news editor assigned me to cover a funeral. I nearly blurted out ‘But gosh! I’ve never been to a funeral. I don’t know what to do. How will I cope?’ I didn’t. I was of course, aged a mere 30 at this point. I went home to change into something more respectful and funereal. Or what I thought was respectful and funereal given that I didn’t actually know. My father invariably wore his black and stripes, and KT tie, and my mother wore a rather mumsy grey velvet suit whenever they went to the mysterious and secret events called funerals that weren’t for little girls.

I slipped into the back of the church. It was bursting at the seams. A couple of local police officers nodded at me. I should explain that this was no ordinary funeral of a local dignitary. Oh no. My parents’ over-protective behaviour in shielding me from the horrors of funerals had resulted in my first funeral being that of a murder victim. It was a very sad and horrible crime. The old woman concerned had been brutally killed, hit over the head as I remember, by a young woman (and/or her boyfriend) who had rented a room from her previously, and was running a bit short of cash. What a terrible way to die. I don’t think I embarrassed myself any more than normal. A few tears dripped down my cheeks as the cortege went past and my over-active imagination pictured the woman’s last moments. I was told to write as much as I could about it, so I filled most of the page and got a by-line and page lead.

Shortly afterwards, and while still working on the same paper, my partner’s step-father died. Fortunately the news editor was sympathetic and gave me two days special leave. It was pretty impossible to get down to South Wales, attend the funeral, and back in a day. This was another eye-opener and exceedingly well done – to my inexperienced eyes of course.

I have very little good to say about my mother-in-law but she certainly arranged a class event. There were two cars for family. I could see a problem with this straightaway. There was the widow (the MIL), the four children (one of which was my partner), the husband and two children of the daughter, me, and the girlfriend of one of the sons. There was also the brother of the deceased and his wife and some other relatives on the same side. Even back then relations between me and the MIL were not exactly cordial. I had visions of her saying ‘ Well you can just go in the second car while I travel in style with my children in front.’ Or maybe tell me to walk. Or whatever. The husband and the two children agreed to go separately.

That still left the thorny issue of who went in the first car, and who got allocated to the second one. MIL inclined herself graciously towards me. ‘You will, of course, come in the front car with us.’ I nearly fell over. The girlfriend, on the other hand, was relegated. Either to the second car, or she went with the husband and kids. On arrival at the church, MIL reminded me that I must go in the front pew with the family. Dear me. Whatever had come over her?

I should say that I had liked her husband. He was as nice and easy-going as she was unpleasant and cantankerous. It was another full house (ie church), packed with South Walians. And unsurprisingly, some exceptionally good singing. The spread afterwards was held at the brother’s house. That was amazing too. His wife (who had the most lovely singing voice during the service) must have been baking for the previous week. The kitchen table was heaving with beautiful cakes and loads and loads of food. And as people chatted and relaxed I realised the ham tea after the service wasn’t just a bite to eat. It gave people who hadn’t seen each other for some time, chance to catch up, and it provided a more gradual way to get rid of the tension and emotion surrounding the funeral. (Needless to state my parents did not make a habit of attending ham teas after funerals). So at the age of 31, I had finally attended my first family funeral, even if it was the stepfather of my partner.

The next one was another sad work-related one, this time in the health service. There I was, sitting in my office just after eight o’clock, I think it was the first day back after the New Year break. The ‘phone rang and it was one of my manager colleagues from the teaching hospital. One of the surgeons had died in a ski-ing accident during the holiday, leaving a widow and two young children. He was talented, young, conscientious, helpful, and had an excellent clinical reputation. We worked closely on a number of cancer-related issues, and he was the sort who would always go the extra mile, contribute whatever he could, and generally brought an awful lot to the service. When I asked him to do a presentation for an evening session I had organised for GPs, he made a superb effort, and his talk was the highlight of the evening. What a loss.

The funeral was the following week. As it was winter, it was freezing. I had a black suit, hat, and gloves, but no black coat. I had a brown one, and a Barbour. It fell to me to represent the authority as well as to turn up on a personal basis. I needed to buy a black coat. I poured through a couple of catalogues I had – but no black coats. Or none that could be sent in time. The following Saturday was spent going around the shops looking for a decent black coat that would pass muster in front of hundreds of consultant surgeons. I should point out that the main role of the authority was as scapegoat for anything and everything. Lack of presence at meetings was always criticised. Not turning up to a funeral would be bleated about forever. Turning up in the wrong clothes would probably be worse.

I found a decent coat. Luckily. Perhaps it should be an interview question. ‘Are you prepared to spend all day Saturday traipsing around the shops and buy a black coat for £400 if you need to go to the funeral of a work colleague?’ And when I got to the church, was I ever glad I had done. There wasn’t a person there in any other colour apart from black. If the other two funerals I had been to were packed, this was jam-packed doubly. And it was a BIG church.

There can’t have been a clinic running that morning as surgeons, physicians, nurses, GPs, admin staff, radiologists, radiographers – you name it – filled the pews. A group of medics who I worked with squashed themselves up so I could join them in the pew, otherwise I would probably have been standing at the back. I think we sang Jerusalem. Or at least I did until my voice faltered in the second verse and I had to shut up. Tough managers don’t break down in church in front of all the city’s health service staff.

Afterwards, the widow and children stood in the freezing snow and ice outside the church receiving all the guests (or whatever it’s called). Another first. I’d only seen that one done at weddings. I shook hands dumbly – what the hell do you say? I couldn’t think of anything. My colleague did, ‘Terrific guy,’ she said sincerely. ‘Thank you,’ said the widow.

There we have it. Three funerals by the age of 40. One for my in-laws, and two sad work-related ones.

And the whole point of this amazingly interesting saga is that it serves absolutely no purpose at all in shielding children/ teenagers/adults from death and funerals. It is a part of life, and it would be better to introduce them naturally as and when they happen.

Because it has to be said that going on your own to cover the funeral of a murder victim isn’t exactly the best intro. Thanks mum and dad for yet another whacky decision in my upbringing.

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About roughseasinthemed

I write about my life as an English person living in Spain and Gibraltar, on Roughseas, subjects range from politics and current developments in Gib to book reviews, cooking and getting on with life. My views and thoughts on a variety of topics - depending on my mood of the day - can be found over on Clouds. A few pix are over on Everypic - although it is not a photoblog. And of course my dog had his own blog, but most of you knew that anyway. Pippadogblog etc
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13 Responses to Funerals

  1. Bren says:

    I remember that era well, and agree, sheltering children from what is after all normal is not good. I attended my first funeral soon after giving birth to my first baby and it was a close friend's 4yr old daughter who had died from Meningitis.. It was awful and I still recall seeing the shock of grown men crying… My children have a much healthier outlook on life and death I am pleased to say.

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  2. Seems like I wasn't the only one to have an unexpected and sad first funeral to attend ….. Sorry to hear you had such a sad one to go to, especially just after having had your first child.

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  3. Bren says:

    Odd, once one brings up things like this just how many had similar experiences x

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  4. oh I wrote a huge long and imho opinion very relevant comment only for blogger to eat it up. I will try again……

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  5. ok, will try yet again. God, I am mad with blogger, I wrote a lot too, and it has disappeared totally.First funeral I ever attended I have just worked out I would have been 42. It was the funeral of the teacher shot at point blank range in my son's school. I knew her from working with her when I was the Clerk to the School Board, lovely lady.Before that, I had been forbidden as a child, to attend any family funerals. Once, at my maternal grandmother's funeral, I was consigned to stay with my ageing great aunt with a heart condition, whilst the great and the good attended the funeral. I would have been better off imho going to my grandmother's funeral, because AGA had a heart complaint, which was actually heart stopping, so there were several moments in her company, that long and boring afternoon, when I thought she was dead!!My friend lost her father at the age of 11, he dropped dead from a heart attack, she was forbidden to attend the funeral neither was her brother (about two or three years older) allowed to attend. They both spent the day with my parents. My friend told me a while back, she resents the fact she never had the chance to say goodbye properly. A funeral is a closing ceremony in life, it needs attending.I was moved by your story of the young surgeon killed in the ski-ing accident.All my children have attended the funerals of grandparents and relatives, my youngest son, was 11 when he attended his beloved maternal grandmother's funeral, it is totally necessary for children to see there is a beginning, middle and end to life. J x hoping this comment gets under the razor wire this time.

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  6. GJ – like Bren and I – seems like you had a traumatic first funeral. But like Bren, you too have been a sensible and thoughtful mother. Your comments got under the razor wire. They were very sound.

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  7. Vicky says:

    Same here, and for the same reason too, plus I can beat your age for a 1st funeral, being almost 49 at my dads’

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    • Wow Vicky, I think you have won the prize with that one. I must say I was pleased my father’s wasn’t my first – especially as I did all the arrangements – so the odd trio beforehand had proved helpful. Must have been pretty dire for you 😦 I must have been 43 for my dad’s. Notched it up to five now, as we went to one a year or two ago here in Gib which was very minimalist, although we did get a personal thank-you from the widower for attending.

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  8. free penny press says:

    My favorite Grandmother died when I was 7..I was not allowed to attend and I was devastated..I don’t think I ever got over it and hence my dislike of funerals today.. or maybe not dislikes, but a silent protest..

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    • Oh L, I missed this comment, so sorry.

      I wanted to go to my grandmothers’ funerals. I felt very excluded.

      Rather than a dislike now, if there is one where I feel I can attend without being spectator sport, I try and go. It’s nice to see people saying thank you for taking the time to attend. It’s nice to not leave people alone at a time of grief.

      There will be no-one at mine!

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  9. Y says:

    I tend to agree with your parents about children and funerals. The children are often a distraction from the process for the adults, and the children have no need to participate in the pain in which they really have no investment or understanding. Thanks for sharing your experiences,

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    • I’m not sure what you mean by that. All you have to do is read the previous comments (and my post) where a lot of us wanted to go to the funerals of our very much loved relatives.

      What were we all going to do? Dance in the aisle? Why would children be a distraction?

      It’s not just about pain, it’s about marking a relationship that is over. Looking at it solely from a controlling adult point of view doesn’t help a child to get over the loss – to to grieve. Or even to learn how to go to funerals. Look at the ages of the commenters above before they attended first funerals.

      My parents were born in the 1920s. I’d like to think their views about some archaic practices were not still being perpetuated.

      Thank you for you visits and comments, and you are welcome to disagree, but on such an emotive topic that clearly has affected others, I think a reply is merited.

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  10. “And the whole point of this amazingly interesting saga is that it serves absolutely no purpose at all in shielding children/ teenagers/adults from death and funerals. It is a part of life, and it would be better to introduce them naturally as and when they happen.

    Because it has to be said that going on your own to cover the funeral of a murder victim isn’t exactly the best intro. Thanks mum and dad for yet another whacky decision in my upbringing.”

    I think you handled them about as well as any sheltered person could have handled them Clouds. You did fine. I too don’t quite understand many things in our Western societies that are kept hidden away for the sake of “proper etiquette” or “civilized” or what not, or many things of human nature. I was raised somewhat UNconventionally about lifestyles and deathstyles given Texas and the southern U.S. My father and mother raised me to celebrate and respect both. Ironically… as you know already… my life-shattering shock came when my Dad decided to leave this life completely on his own terms, despite what anyone else thought or felt, along with severe major depression. :/

    My hope for you today Clouds is that you see now how fully life and death (paradoxically) belong together. And this affords you a fuller life. 🙂

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