Friday, 10 December 2010

Funeral/no funeral?

Excellent post from Charles over at the Good Funeral Guide ("Endgame," 09:12:10. If you are interested in these matters and you haven't visited Charles yet, hie thee thither without delay.) He writes about the myopic selfishness of those who say "just chuck me out with the rubbish when I'm gone," or more formally , insist on no funeral at all - with no discussion with their families before they die.

Since the point he makes is so strong and, seems to me, unarguable, I can only assume this: many people state exactly what they want to happen (during a period of time when they will not be there) because they are members of the cult of the individual ego that distorts how we look at life and death.

You can't "personalise" your own funeral, or lack of it, because you won't be there, mate. It is the world without you that will have to deal with your instructions. And whilst you may get some satisfaction in knowing what lies ahead funeralwise, as you lie there slipping away, is that not just the tiniest bit selfish, if you've not checked it out with the family? And what if you go suddenly? ("Bugger, me aorta's burst. Now about that funer......")

Your family are the only people who can make it an event that reflects you. A funeral is an event, not a script. Just as a play script isn't a play. And a non-event, when grievers may want and need one, might be a painful non-event for those you love. It isn't a smart idea, to be enjoyed by "the deceased," it's a non-idea, if your family would have benefitted from a funeral. In that case, it's a hole in their lives, an absence, a negation.

It might be reasonable, after talking it through with family, to have no funeral. But just to demand no funeral, out of your own wishes, with no consultation, seems to me a final act of the cruellest egotism. I doubt such people can face their own death with anything like equanimity, because presumably they lack resignation, acceptance of the reality of the natural cycle of life/death. If they had that insight, they would surely not follow such a destructive train of thought.

So maybe yet again, it comes down to how you view your own mortality.

A while ago, I helped with the funeral of a man (call him "Bill") who lived a fairly solitary life. With no children, and separated from his third wife many years previously, he spent most of his time in the public library
and the local pub (he was a clever man with a sharp mind.) There was no "family meeting." I met one of his pals from the local pub, in the office of the funeral director. It was this pal who'd decided that Bill should have a proper funeral, and he paid for it himself. But he didn't know much about Bill's earlier life.

Eventually we made contact with his third wife, who was very helpful and came to the funeral, though she didn't want to speak at it. The only other people there were his boozing companions, about eight of them. They were a well-weathered bunch of individuals. They carried the coffin in. One of them, who'd certainly had a stiffener or three by then (11:30 a.m...) muttered, "well,I s'pose there's a first time for everything," and in we went.

My guess is that Bill, who was a self-described atheist and a Communist, would have said "chuck me on the skip." He left no instructions about his funeral (or anything else.) His general attitude to life and to death seems to have been one of defiance.

I found the whole occasion moving. It was poignant to see how this crowd of dedicated boozers had hauled themselves into collars and ties and come some little distance; they were the only possible pall-bearers and mourners, apart from his patient and philosophical ex-wife. It was very moving to think how his old pal had shelled out to see the thing done. They'd said good-bye to a good saloon-bar friend, a bloke they described as "cussed, entertaining, bloody clever." Job done. Back to the Pig and Whistle for a straightener. Any announcements about meeting up for "refeshments" would have been superfluous...

I read them a stanza by Tony Harrison. It seemed to me to sum up Bill's defiant attitude towards death, and life:

Death’s a debt that everybody owes,

And if you’ll last the night out no-one knows.

Learn your lesson then, and thank your stars

For wine and company and all-night bars.

Life careers gravewards at a breakneck rate,

So drink and love, and leave the rest to Fate.


  1. "You can't "personalise" your own funeral, or lack of it, because you won't be there, mate." Bullseye!

    I LOVE the story of the funeral. Bloomin marvellous -- a tribute to unqualified affection of a very mature kind and testament to the extraordinariness of ordinary people.

    The Tony Harrison was a masterstroke. Not many funerals offer it an opportunity for an outing. Pity!

  2. "The extraordinariness of ordinary people." How well expressed. It's so interesting and rewarding, so easy to miss. Thanks Charles.

    And yes, I think that's about the only time I've managed to give the redoubtable Harrison some exercise.

  3. Always our favourite type of funeral; awkward bloke, difficult circumstance, unprepared ramshackle crew of misfit mates. One of the reasons we don't employ bearers is to have that 'first time for everything' moment every time. And full marks for getting Tony out, the natural successor to Larkin's graveyard tone.

  4. Thanks Rupert; you've made me think that instead of turning to convenient anthologies (mine or others)so often, I should invest more time in looking through poet's work for myself, if I can find more such that speaks so directly. Though not everyone wants directness...