In ITV’s otherwise terrible drama Finding Alice, one line struck me with particular force. A funeral director is addressing our heroine, who finds herself unexpectedly having to organise last rites for her partner. Wicker coffins are particularly popular now with relatives, says the undertaker, and I found myself nodding in strong agreement. A light woven coffin, made of pleasingly biodegradable material and topped with a simple but stylish cross of early spring flowers, was exactly what we selected for my father, to be buried in one of the last remaining — and therefore highly sought-after — spots in the churchyard. ‘This might sound a very odd thing to say,’ said Dad’s favourite vicar to me over a large glass of wine after the service, ‘but that was the loveliest coffin I have ever seen.’
As I write this, it is six years to the day since my father died (a man with an impish sense of humour as well as a longstanding annual subscription to The Spectator, it would tickle him to know that he is featuring posthumously in his favourite magazine). Much has happened in our family over these past six years, but every minute detail of Dad’s funeral remains as vivid to me as if it were yesterday. As the country’s Covid death toll tops a scarcely credible 117,000 and each day’s grisly statistics are read out on the nightly news, I cannot help but think of all the families who have been denied the chance to say a proper farewell to loved ones over these past months.
The rules of the current lockdown allow for 30 people to attend a funeral, with a mere six permitted at a wake (or indeed the scattering of ashes). In some instances, this might suffice, but in the overwhelming majority of cases it will not. Lives well lived tend to involve more than 30 mourners at the final send-off; 126 people came to my Dad’s funeral and, as I stood at the lectern to deliver the eulogy for the person who has most profoundly shaped my life, I was immensely grateful for the presence of each and every one of them. A sea of sad and (mostly) familiar faces smiled encouragingly up at me as I paused to gather myself, and I could feel the immense goodwill emanating from the pews, packed with Dad’s friends, neighbours, former colleagues and social acquaintances. It was the most visceral reminder of how much my father had meant, how many connections he had made and sustained in a long life fruitfully spent, and this striking sight sustained me through ten of the most challenging minutes I have ever endured. The memory of it continues to sustain me now.
I have scant time for wafty blatherings about the ‘journey’ of grief, but what I do know is this: a good funeral — and the lasting memories thereof — is of paramount importance for those left behind, as they try to make sense of what they have lost. Every intricately planned aspect of that final farewell matters — it was crucial to Mum and me that the sandwiches we served at the wake in the church hall were flavours Dad would have liked, and the wine of a standard agreeable to him — and can be stored up as a bulwark against future sadness. It’s the ‘dream wedding’ principle all over again, but turned inside out this time. I cannot begin to imagine how families are managing under the current strictures, when precious lives lost cannot be mourned with all the ceremony, not to mention endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies, they deserve. If I had looked out on that late February day at 96 fewer precious faces in the congregation, it would have been a damn sight harder to get through the afternoon.
I hope that when the government comes to review lockdown restrictions in the weeks to come, they rethink the maximum number permitted at funerals, above all for the sake of the future mental health of the bereaved. If places of worship are permitted to be open for regular socially distanced services, with no government mandated cap on attendance numbers, surely funerals could be allowed a higher capacity? Promises of amply attended memorial services, to be held when ‘things get back to normal’, can only sustain mourning families so far.
For important as such postponed acts of remembrance can very well be, it is the immediacy of death, the sudden piercing shock of grief, that needs to be marked with solemn and fitting ceremony. Death, after all, is life’s final rite of passage. Until and unless it is celebrated as such at the due moment, everyone involved is left stranded in a helpless limbo, a no man’s land between this world and whatever is to come.
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