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Roses 2009 © Carol Lefevre


DEATH WISHES


While birthdays are relentlessly celebrated our whole life long, with the 'big ones' marked by well-meaning yet often cringe-making speeches, deaths are marked by a funeral and afterwards by a fog of silence. People turn out in numbers for the send off but then want to say no more about it, for each funeral inevitably conjures up uncomfortable thoughts of our own mortality and demise.

I have been to ceremonies that have ranged from a few moments of excruciating silence in a crematorium chapel - a deeply harrowing though mercifully brief experience - to a full-on bells and whistles 'family' funeral which culminated in a release of brightly coloured balloons with crepe-paper tails into an overcast winter sky. In between, there were funerals at which daughters spoke movingly of their lost mother and one of them played the organ and sang a version of All Things Bright and Beautiful that left not a dry eye in the house; at another, the bereft widower stood up and spoke of his long and apparently happy marriage, breaking down now and then, yet soldiering bravely on and even feeling compelled to crack a few jokes for the benefit of those of us snivelling into our lace-edged handkerchiefs. Recently I heard of someone who was being given a 'natural' burial, which turned out to mean that there was no money for a coffin and so the body was to be simply bundled up in cloth before being put into the ground or cremated.

At each funeral, what has struck me is the way people turn to writers to express the inexpressible, and the way that writers, on the whole, always seem to let them down. There is so much bad poetry and prose read out at funerals. Perhaps it is because the people who choose the readings are both stricken by grief and ill prepared; who, after all, has spent much time trawling through the cannon of literature for pithy funeral contributions? Often, I suspect, the funeral director produces a range of tried and true 'popular' texts and the desolate relatives fasten thankfully on his suggestions. But surely there can be no excuse, ever, for including snatches of song from the Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, Cats. I've heard it with my own ears. In defence of the people concerned, I imagine they were groping towards saying something memorable, something that would communicate a loving relationship that had ended prematurely, but what has any of that to do with a stage musical, I wonder?

The funeral that hit me hardest was my father's. After more than three decades it has almost been blotted from conscious memory, although every funeral I attend triggers a pain that has its roots in his death and burial. I have no recollection of what was said, or sung, but I remember that the coffin seemed ridiculously small and that, as it was lowered into the grave on ropes, our posies of roses, daisies and violets were showered with the crumbling orange-red soil of the area.

After it was over, and everyone had gone home, my mother, brother and I returned to the raised mound of the grave to stand among the bouquets of flowers. I, for one, still expected to return to the house and see my father walking up the drive to meet us. I expected to hear him laugh and say that it was all a bad joke or some scheme he'd lighted on to minimise his tax.

The latest funeral experience has made me realise that I had better sort out my own wishes and make them known, unequivocally. I have to ensure that no-one accidentally slots in some worn out tune or awful poem or, worse still, a modern bible reading with that ghastly, grovelling, lowest-common-denominator tone. I have nothing against the bible, as such, but the King James version is the only version I recognise, and I want to make that absolutely clear.

After all the sentimental poems and wildly inappropriate quotations at the bells and whistles funeral, the traditional words of the committal fell upon the congregation like balm, I thought: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust... the symmetry of the language enters the ear as poetry. The benediction was tolerable, but as my mother later remarked, what was missing in all that fluff was The Lord's Prayer. She may or may not have been right, but where does that leave me?

When I was younger I imagined Bob Dylan belting out Mr Tambourine Man at my funeral. Florist's arrangements would be banned; instead there would be jam jars stuffed with home-grown flowers of a single variety and colour, depending on the season. Fragrant roses were my first choice, but anything would do, as long as it was not a bilious mix. In my thirties I wanted Joan Sutherland singing Oh Divine Redeemer, because the blinding high notes are sublime and bring tears to my eyes. However, realising that I will not be in a position to weep at the high notes, and having endured funerals with tunes whose high notes have made otherwise dry-eyed mourners inconsolable, I have abandoned that idea.

Currently, it is not only the choice of words and music that concerns me, but the coffin itself; the lacquered wood and chrome-handled models on offer seem as impersonal as mass-produced coffee tables, so I have asked my husband to build me one. It will be of untreated pine, sturdy, yet made graceful by the decorative mouldings he is adept at using after years of building our bookcases. If the coffin is constructed as a trunk shape rather than tapered towards the feet, it can be used, in the interim, for storage. I will paint it myself, two layers of my favourite blue-green milk paint. On top of the final coat of milk paint I will hand-stencil flowers and leaves, twining stems of ivy, lilac, honeysuckle, rose, with patches of violets and thrift sprouting in the corners. Afterwards, I will wax the lot and buff it to a soft sheen. The inside surfaces will be a personal collage, photographs of loved ones, of pets, like my long-dead black poodle, Polly; there will be pictures of places I have loved, mixed with scraps of lace and patchwork, fragments of poetry and prose.

I like to think of being laid in this box amid the scent of the clove-studded oranges dried in powdered orris root which I used to make and pile in bowls for our cold northern hemisphere Christmases. If I make certain that there are some dried oranges handy at the time of my death, the family can tuck them in beside me. As for the words and music - O'Carolan's Eleanor Plunkett, and Planxty Fanny Poers, followed by fragments of prose - 'The Lilacs of Tansonville' or 'Dreams of Florence In Spring', from Swann's Way; the long soliloquy that conjures an imaginary garden and begins 'If I had a garden..' from Colette's Earthly Paradise which, for many years, was the only book I dipped into before sleep. The 23rd psalm will be followed by the committal. Nothing more will be said, but O'Carolan's Farewell To Music will play everyone out to the nearest, nicest pub for a cheering glass of bubbly.

Those are the best thoughts I have on the matter at the moment. If there is an update, I will be sure and make my wishes known.
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