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.