Charles Cowling

Interesting, isn’t it, how two contrary opinions need not be mutually exclusive? When one opinion does not displace the other you’re left either tonguetied with indecision or, if they merge, ambivalent. Ambivalence may be seen as fence-sitting, but I think that’s simplistic. To honour two opposed points of view equally seems to me to be a perfectly grown-up way of resolving a problem.

That’s the way my mind was working as I drove home yesterday after seeing Andrew Smith, a funeral director in Macclesfield with a two year-old but already booming business. Andrew does old-school bigtime. It’s what his clients want. And, here’s the point, he does it not for cosmetic reasons, nor to make himself feel important, but in order to create and serve (these are my words, not his) the particular sort and sense of occasion that his clients want. A funeral is something we rise to. And, yes, it is a performance, it is theatre, and any funeral director worth their salt needs to have thought about this, about how the parts are to be played. Any performer who betrays the least self-consciousness or disengagement is fatally flawed. If you can’t lose yourself in the part, all anyone else can see is someone failing to be something they’re not. That’s why costume or uniform is so important. Anything less than perfection begets inauthenticity; it corrupts performance, relegates it to tawdry playacting and renders it meaningless. What goes for the funeral director goes, too, for the spear-carriers – in the case of funerals, the bearers. They need to rehearse. They need to be filled with a sense of occasion – to get into role. And they need to be dressed right. In the bearers’ changing room at Andrew’s funeral home you’ll see a row of immaculately polished oxfords. Not Clarks oxfords, Loake oxfords. The best it gets. Fantastic.

Andrew supposed me to be anti top hat, but I’m not. I’m anti prat in a hat. He also supposed me to be anti-embalming. I am. I am also for it. I can see both sides and I take neither: I am serenely ambivalent. It all depends on how it’s done, why it’s done and the code of conduct in the mortuary. Andrew has a strong feeling about how the dead should be looked after, and he reminded me of something Sean Lynch says in the PBS documentary about Tom Lynch’s funeral home in Michigan: “I have memories as a very young boy of being brought over here with my father as he was working, and watching him and his colleagues dressing and casketing bodies, you know, very quietly, very reverently, doing something for someone that can no longer do anything for themselves, and even at a young age, before I could articulate the importance of that kind of work, I recognised it as something very significant and essential.” If you watch Parts 3 and 4 of the documentary you can see what he means. It’s why Andrew is pro-embalming. He wants people to have the best possible memory of their dead person. Echoes here of Tom: “Watching my parents, I watched the meaning change of what it is that undertakers do, from something done to the dead to something done for the living, to something done by the living, every one of us. Thus, undertakings are the things we do to vest the lives we lead against the cold, the meaningless, the void, the noisy blather and the blinding dark.”

I admire Andrew enormously. I liked the look of Macclesfield, too. Nice place to live, I should think. Certainly a good place to die.

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