Posted by Ariadne
For an altar there was the chest of drawers in the corner by the window. Flowers, candles, drawings and sea urchin shells collected from the beach. The bedroom had turquoise walls or perhaps they were white and it’s just memory doing the decorating. When everything was right and ready, I made my parents and 10 year old sister file in and stand solemnly bearing witness, hands folded. I may have bossed them around further, but from this distance the details are hazy. I spoke and they did as they were told and so we all said our goodbyes to Uncle Arthur. I count this as my first service. It was my 8th summer.
Uncle Arthur had come to live with us after the death of his wife Dotty, my Father’s Aunt. In his eighties, he wore a collar, tie and waistcoat even at weekends and had fought in the First World War. I was 6, wore an eager expression most of the time and fought with tying my shoelaces. We had plenty in common. He taught me the names of garden birds, trained me in shoe-polishing, button-sewing and cigarette rolling. We’d watch Thunderbirds, Dixon of Dock Green and Z cars together on a small black and white TV. I’d play my recorder along to the Z Cars theme tune. This would put him in a bad mood. We’d cheer together for Mick McManus or Giant Haystacks on Grandstand wrestling – One-AH! Two-AH! Some days I’d tip out my felt pens and starting at either side of the paper, we’d create what he mysteriously termed a ‘joint effort’. Abstracts mostly, in our early period.
We were abroad on holiday when the news came of his death; he’d been staying with my grandparents in Wales and I have no idea what kind of funeral took place as we stood remembering him in the afternoon heat of another country.
It’s now about 40 years later and I’m still a novice celebrant, having recently trained with Green Fuse. It’s early days. Days during which I have become no less exasperated with inevitably having to explain what ‘funeral celebrant’ means. Need to work on that one. Keep wanting to say ‘oh you know, fake vicar’ or ‘someone who dances at the graveside – for cock’s sake what do you THINK it means?’ and it won’t do.
Dealing with those who can’t understand – for the life of them! – why anyone would be interested in doing such a thing is another matter. The Persistent Vegetative State would appear to be a lifestyle choice for some people. For me, caring about death seems as obvious or as basic as caring about life. It’s been pointed out that everyone dies, but not everyone lives. Despite this, discussing the subject or even simply acknowledging its attendant practicalities can still mark you out as a bit weird. Apparently. Even in London.
I’m not a believer in the afterlife, or any other kind of life apart from the one here and now and at times even that one’s too much. I’m hugely drawn to the ideas put forward by Irvin Yalom in Staring at the Sun. And surely everyone’s entitled to believe whatever they damn well please – I love the fact that there’s no right answer and sort of expect everyone to defend their own views as robustly as I’ll defend mine. Speak as if you’re right, listen as if you’re wrong, as Charles Cowling said to me at the London Funeral Exhibition recently. I’m rubbish at listening as if I’m wrong, but it’s good advice. I may add it to my To Do list.