Before we start, this is the final part of a story about the big things: life, death and skateboarding. And about saying goodbye to Meg, a 92-year-old woman who died three weeks ago. After this you are free. If you missed the previous columns, it might help to click here and here and here. Thank you.
The final preparations have been made and, to keep things simple, recognisable and calm for those attending, the conventions of a funeral have been mostly adhered to.
There are some personal downsides to this strategy. For one, my music suggestions have been roundly disregarded. You see, it looks like the final CD that Meg played was The Very Best of Bob Dylan and so I thought that “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” would be ideal. But then I unwisely chance my luck by also floating the idea of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. “How would that ever be appropriate for a woman who is going to be cremated?” asks my partner. I see some merit in his response but recognising that my role on the music committee is doomed, I go all out: “So I suppose there’s no chance of ‘Lay Lady Lay’?”
I am to be in charge of flowers and my advice might be needed on matters of typesetting and photo selection for the order of service. Oh, and Mozart and Elgar will set the musical tone instead of me.
Choosing the pictures for the order of service is anyway a less contentious matter. On the front we will have Meg at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire just a year ago. Black rollneck sweater. Single string of pearls. We crop the photo to take the focus away from the line-up of champagne coupes in front of us. On the reverse is the picture that we found of Meg in her twenties on the ski slopes.
The service is not in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she moved to just over a decade ago but in the Cotswolds village where she previously lived, in a house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright with a large garden running down to a stream. It’s the house she also lived in with Charles. She married him when she was 47 but he died from an aneurysm after 11 years, tipping her back into the life of a single – and very social – woman. But now Meg and Charles will be reunited in the church’s graveyard when her ashes are interred with his body in the coming days. I know I fret about the details but it feels a little odd; shouldn’t you both choose the same burial option? If you X-rayed the soil, would it just look like Charles had packed a flask of soup for the trip to the afterlife?
But first, something less than pleasant. We are standing at the church gates – the 30 mourners allowed inside under current coronavirus rules and a large number of villagers who knew Meg and want to say goodbye. Just as the hearse arrives, a man in his thirties comes down the road in the opposite direction on an electric skateboard. When he realises he cannot easily get past, he jumps off the skateboard, runs up to the vehicle and starts banging on the glass next to the coffin. “You’re in my way!” he hollers. I freeze. I am not sure what he thinks Meg can do at this juncture. The large team of undertakers gently intervenes. Finally he goes, still screaming, “You nearly ran me over!”
Now, you have to admit, it would be a good business idea: use a hearse to mow down unpleasant people in front of churches, have a coffin on hand to pop them in, then call the family and suggest that if they have their credit card on hand, you could find a burial slot for them in the next 30 minutes. Anyway, Meg ignores all the kerfuffle, the vicar apologises for the drama and we follow her through the doors.
The church is Norman, stone. The tops of the pews are indented and polished by generations of people rubbing hands along them. It’s sunny and butter-yellow light beams the air. Even the vicar is straight out of central casting.
David, my partner, reads Henry Scott Holland’s “Death is Nothing at All”. While clearly you could be had under the trades descriptions act for that statement, it’s pretty good: “Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.”
Then my turn to do the eulogy. I read the column that kicked off this series. In the end I took out the bit about incontinence pads. When I come to the final lines about the miracles of life, the passing on of the baton of existence, I feel the tears.
Then we all follow Meg back to the hearse, the coffin held aloft on the shoulders of four of the black-suited undertakers, because now she needs to see the cremator before joining Charles. There are buttons of primroses dotted in the spring grass. On the breeze you can still hear Elgar’s “Nimrod” playing in our wake. The lead undertaker puts on his gleaming black top hat, gently swivels it to fit perfectly and then walks in front of the hearse as it eases away. We watch until it is out of sight.