Monday, 30 September 2013

Funerals - An inadequate way to say goodbye?

Nothing sharpens your focus on what’s important in life than a friend or relatives’ funeral.
I expect anyone who has lived in Buckinghamshire for any length of time will be familiar with the sweeping drive up to Chilterns Crematorium.
Last week I attended the funeral of my dear old neighbour, Stan.
At 89, Stan passed away of a heart attack whilst under observation for an un-heart related illness in hospital. So although it was expected, there was still a bit of shock value to his passing, he’d have liked that. 
A former soldier and about as cockney as they come, Stan was a genuine character of our cul-de-sac.
I’ll personally remember him for his great sense of humour and kindness – he walked my aging shih tzu every day for years - only ever accepting a fiver on a friday for a beer as payment.
He also once nursed my ailing fairground goldfish back to health in an orange bucket - which he found hilarious as it took us ages to actually spot the fish.
He was a colourful eccentric, leaving Christmas lights on all year round and driving every morning (choke fully open) to get his morning paper. 
His porch was like Blackpool grockle shop. Covered with all manner of tantalising trinkets, from dangling plastic spiders to odd flower pot men fashioned out of old wood and pots. The poor district nurses popping in at night must have had the bejeebers scared out of them.
Living directly opposite, he’d watch me dither about every Tuesday evening, playing ‘wheelie bin bingo’ before hollering out the right colour.Stan also seemed to know the Wycombe District Council’s Wheelie Bin rota by heart.
And he was always right, even on Bank Holidays.
The Funeral Format
Sitting in silence, save for a few muffled sobs, as the curtain symbolically closed around Stan’s casket I couldn’t help feel the inadequacy of the British funeral.
No reflection of Stan’s daughter’s heartfelt eulogy or his granddaughter’s poignant reading of the poem ‘Stand Down Soldier’, there was something amiss in the format.  And perhaps that’s exactly what it is, a funeral format.
It’s a great leveler to know that life will probably come down to a 20-minute presentation about your achievements, two songs (one likely to be Wind Beneath my Wings) and a finger buffet at the local boozer.
The truth is that unless you verbalise or put in writing your last wishes no one is actually going to know what you want.
Having had that conversation my partner, I now know he wishes to be buried like a dog. 
This came about through the death of my neighbour’s beloved German shepherd, Maggie, several years ago.   
'Baggins' as she was affectionately known, died suddenly of a heart attack whilst out trotting on her daily walk.
No warning, no illness, no injection in the paw, just here one moment then crossing over the rainbow bridge the next.
Hearing the news and knowing what Baggins meant to her owners, a number of us gathered at their home. Her body, still warm, lay in the back of their car; there had been no time to get to the vets.
Although in shock there was an air of a job to be done.  Almost without speaking, the men folk (very Downton-esque, I know) went to the bottom of the garden and started to dig.
They dug for hours in the cold Autumn drizzle. Huge mounds of earth piling up each side. In the end the hole was deep and wide enough for a human. 

Wrapped in her old blanket, they carefully laid Baggins down in her muddy forever bed. The first few spades of earth were cast by her owner before the rest joined in.
This gesture changed my partner’s view of funerals forever. Upon his passing he wants the same treatment. And despite it probably being a jail-able offense, I understand.
There’s something beautiful and cathartic about digging the final resting place for someone you love.
It's dirty, it's hard work and above all it's real.
Forget sanitised funerals, pan piped Eva Cassidy songs and finger buffets, let’s get stuck in.    
What do you think? I'd love to know.

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