Celebrating a Long and Well Lived Life

There is no other life event that compares to a funeral. You expect weddings to be picture book pretty, baby-naming to be joyful, divorce to be bitter and embattled, but a funeral can be any or all of these things and more besides, depending on your relationship to the deceased.

Last week I went to my cousin, Gordon’s funeral. He’d reached the grand age of 92 and was the son of my eldest uncle. Like many families of the age, my father’s family was and is an enormous, village tribe consisting of so many branches I’ve lost track of who everyone is and how they are related to me. Being the youngest of seven my father was uncle to Gordon at an almost identical age, prompting my grandfather [who died before my birth] to use ‘Uncle’ as his nickname.

Gordon’s funeral was held at the church in the village of my birth, a tiny, country church in a beautiful, picturesque setting, bathed in the glow of the May sunshine. The small building was packed, as it was for my father’s funeral five years before. My brother and I were directed towards the front pews. Would we know anyone? We are from the family that ‘got away’-my father having left the village with us to take up employment in another part of the country, hence contact with the many aunts, uncles and cousins has been sporadic and increasingly rare.

We made our way up the aisle, aware that curious looks were pursuing us. The lack of familiarity was mutual. I stopped by the first pew with some space. The occupants turned their faces to me, the fleeting blankness eclipsed by impulsive wide grins of recognition. These are two of my best remembered cousins; my recollections of them ingrained as glamorous, fifties belles in stiff, circular skirts, heels and beehive hairdos. They stood to hug us as we all exclaimed our pleasure at meeting.

Of my grandfather’s four sons, my father was alone in pursuing a career away from greengrocery, and Gordon had continued the fruit and vegetable business his father [Edgar] ran. His coffin was born past us adorned with a riotous profusion of flowers, fruit and vegetables, including bright bunches of carrots, vibrant spears of broccoli and large, emerald cabbage leaves. What more life-affirming sight could there be than a mountain of freshly picked plants?

I have attended a variety of funerals during my life; some consisting of no more than six attendees, sad affairs that make you glad, at least that the deceased was not present to witness such a poor turnout. Gordon was a gentle, amenable man, affording to everyone he met the same smiling courtesy and kindness and nobody would have been more proud and delighted to have seen the crammed church, the smiles of recognition and the pleasure we all took in re-acquaintance.

Hymns sung and thoughts sent, we all gathered in the village community centre for tea, cake and recollection.

For those closest to Gordon it was of course an unutterably sad event but there must be an element of comfort to be gained from reflecting on what turned out to be a cheerful and celebratory occasion.

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Worldly Troubles? I blame God…

                When my brothers and I were small children we were sent to Sunday school. We would begin on Sunday mornings by undertaking a thorough cleaning of our shoes [in my case it was most likely Clarks sandals with the cut out flower in the toe] then have to walk down through the village to the church and into a small section of the vestry where we would listen to Bible stories and sing along to a hymn:

                ‘Jesus bids us shine with a steadfast light

                Like a little candle burning in the night

                In this world of darkness we can shine

                You in your small corner

                And I in mine’

was a favourite.

                The best part of Sunday school was the stamp, gravely distributed and stuck on to a card as proof of attendance.

                My parents did not accompany us to these privileged gatherings, preferring to stay at home and enjoy the Sunday morning free of us-and who can blame them? My father was, in those days an occasional Church goer. But my mother was an unabashed, self-confessed atheist- brought up a Catholic, schooled in convents where [allegedly] she was beaten with a rubber slipper, until all vestige of religious belief was truly eradicated.

                Having learned at Sunday school that life after death was a trip to heavenly paradise I would sit on my mother’s lap and seek reassurance from her that this was assuredly the case, only to be told that death was ‘like a candle being snuffed out’. There was that candle theme again.

                The hypocrisy of sending us to Sunday school whilst admitting died-in-the-wool atheism appeared to present no qualms for my mother. Presumably the opportunity to off load us for a morning was compelling enough to overcome them. In any case my father put in a sporadic appearance at church at that time.

                Some years later, long after I’d begun to acquire my own lack of belief an aunt wrote to tell me it was time for me to become ‘confirmed’-an undertaking I took very little time to decide upon. I wrote back [extraordinarily politely for a mardy teenager] explaining that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a member of the Church of England-or indeed any church, come to that.

                Later still, when my own children came into being there was pressure from family members to have them christened, as I had been. I held out. They might want to be Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. Who was I to choose a religion for them?- And if I did, what was to stop them from rebelling, as all self respecting teenagers should?

                Because that is what I find baffling about indoctrination. Yes, small children are little sponges who soak up knowledge, skills or gobbledegook indiscriminately, only to rage against everything they’ve been taught as soon as a hormone raises its head above the window sill. So how come fervent devotion to religion is still rampant in the world, causing mayhem, war and suffering? And what ‘God’ would allow it all to happen?