Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Memento Mori

It has been a time for grieving. Last night we rescued a pigeon and tried to save its life, but it didn't make it and today we buried a dear friend. Both have caused me sadness.

It's been a difficult couple of days.
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Our friend John was  ninety-one. That is an exceptionally good age. Someone remarked that he died of old age, which is practically unheard of these days. Everyone dies of disease. He and his partner Elizabeth were a delightful pair. Even in their advanced aged, both were (still are in Elizabeth's case) sharp as a tack. We shared many laughs over dinner and had many philosophical discussions. We were all pleased to discover a shared love of Archy and Mehitabel  by Don Marquis about a literate cockroach and his alley cat friend. John had what we would call a "cut glass accent." When you think of posh English voices who say things like "Dear boy" and "old chap" and "rah-ther" that was John. Despite being wealthy and posh, he was very down to earth with a silly sense of humour. We discovered at the funeral his middle name was Clive which tickled us all. He sure kept that quiet. But Clive is such a quintessentially British sounding name, it suited him.

  He will be missed.

This was my first British funeral. I had been to Quaker memorial services, but that is different. It is essentially Meeting for Worship with testimonies about the deceased's life. A time where friends could share memories of the deceased.

This was a Church of England funeral. It was held in Saint Martin's Church in Merthyr about 15 minutes from town. This was John's church, but being a small rural church it had a vicar who rotated between other small parish churches and so only met once a month. The other Sundays he went to St Peter's Church in town where so many of our friends attend.

The church was small and damp (the plaster on the walls bubbling slightly and rubbed off on the sleeve of our friend Gareth's jacket) but the service was warm. We sang some of John's favourite hymns--All Things Bright and Beautiful (which always reminds me of the Monty Python version All Things Dull and Ugly) and How Great Thou Art. The last hymn made me tear up quite a bit as it was the "party piece" my dear old dad and I used to harmonise on all those years ago. After the service, we retired next door for tea and sandwiches (I brought my own snacks.)

Now, this may sound like many a funeral you have attended if you are American, but here is where the funeral diverged from my own experience.

First off, very few people are cremated in Louisiana. When my dad was in 2000 (how can it be that long ago??) it was a rarity. Certain family members took it really badly. I remember seeing my father's body in a winding sheet in a cardboard coffin at the funeral home. That is the law in the US. If you are to be cremated, this is how they send you off. He was sent far away, to a destination unknown to us (but my hazy memory is Shreveport) and returned to us a few days later. We had a funeral with his ashes in an urn next to a photo of him in happier, healthier times. The next day the family buried the urn, though we kept some ashes for ourselves. My mother and I each kept some in a nice container and we saved some in a ziplock to throw off the side of his favourite mountain in North Carolina.

This is where the funeral became really interesting. After the funeral, we drove to the crematorium in Narberth. I will repeat that. We went to the crematorium. It was slightly like an assembly line with mourners coming out the right side as we were going in on the left. We walked in and the coffin was elevated behind what looked like a communion rail. The vicar said a few words and then as Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring was played a velvet curtain slowly, mechanically moved in front of the coffin to block it from view. Then I am told that the coffin rolled away on a conveyor belt to be burned. In the US, if you want a body for your funeral service, funeral homes will rent you a coffin with a cardboard interior that could be removed for cremation after. We had my dad cremated first and the urn displayed. In the UK the body is cremated with the coffin which is why by law all British coffins must be combustible. According to Wikipedia: The Code of Cremation Practice forbids the opening of the coffin once it has arrived at the crematorium, and rules stipulate that it must be cremated within 72 hours of the funeral service. They also told Elizabeth no jewellery or shoes as they wouldn't burn cleanly. 

Our friend Soong said that he once went to funeral that had a "spy hole" where you could look at the coffin as it burned. I feel slightly weird but morbidly curious about that. 

I wasn't sure how i would feel being so up close and personal with the cremation. Louisiana made it seem secretive and far away and mysterious. This was just another way to say goodbye. An honest way with nothing to hide. I was worried I would feel upset, but i didn't. 

When the coffin disappeared we were led outside to a walkway with a low table that ran the length of  the walkway. On it were the spray of flowers that had only moments before been on the top of the coffin along with a laminated paper saying John Clive. There were four other sets of flowers and names marking five people who were loved and lost that day. Then you were the ones coming out the right hand door while someone new filed in the left hand side. 

It was a lovely day and I enjoyed hearing about John and things he had done in his life before we met him four years ago. I was glad to have been there in the little church with friends to celebrate his life. I know soon when Elizabeth is up to it we will all meet at Soong's restaurant Sai Wu and eat and laugh and remember our friend John Clive.

We will be thankful for his life and for our own. A funeral reminds that we too will one day die, but also reminds us greatly of what we have.


  1. This was very interesting and moving today. A few minutes ago I was reading the memory page on Facebook and it was filled with back and forth comments from me and many friends about being with SweetJames in his last couple of days of life. He died August 3rd, and by today he was in and out of Consciousness most of the time. Adding this funeral to those comments on a gloomy rainy day just gave me lots of poignant feelings. I love you, and thank you for sharing this.

  2. What a lovely tribute to your friend and an interesting insight into the difference across the divide. I really enjoyed reading that. Sorry for your loss