It would have been in the mid-70s that Mrs James stood outside the church in the sunlight and said to my mother with lip-smacking satisfaction, “I always say Packer and Slade do a good funeral”. Mrs James is beyond description and the best I can manage is to say she was a cross between the characters played by Joanna Lumley and Dawn French in ‘Jam and Jerusalem‘. Yes, my childhood was that bizzare. But batty or not, Mrs James had a point, and I have to confess I too dearly love a good funeral.
A good funeral celebrates a life well lived, a death well died, and a difference made in the world. There’s ritual, respect and space to think. A good funeral should also be a damn good party. I guess I have been lucky, that most of the funerals I have been to (and I have been going to funerals since I was a canticle high to a vestment) have been good.
Funerals are for the living, not for the dead, and that is one of the reasons I want my ashes packed into fireworks and set off above mine. I’ll neither know nor care, but there’s something satisfactorily loud and flashy about fireworks and it seems as good a way as any of making sure my bones aren’t dug up to make way for a by-pass. If that’s too vulgar for you, then I’ll have ‘The Lark Ascending’ please, as a nod to the immortality I know doesn’t exist.
Funerals can be bad for any number of reasons, when people die young, for example, or when they commit suicide or were killed through stupidity or malice. Another thing that makes funerals grim is when there is unfinished business, when wounds have not been healed, when spite still ricochets around while the corpse quietly cools in the corner. But fear and pain also make for bad funerals. If the living are too bruised by previous deaths, then every new death simply batters on to those bruises and makes it impossible for someone to think in terms of celebration. If the next of kin isn’t up to the job, then they really should take their neighbours up on offers of help and say flutteringly “Could you organise some food and things? For afterwards?”
Funerals have a very specific oddness because friends get pushed to one side by relatives and, as the saying goes, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. Think of the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales and the appalling way the Spencers bowled up to feed on her glory. Diana’s was not a good funeral: there were too many cross-currents and the event was not about her, but a matter of as many nasty little points being scored as possible.
Good funerals involve friends and family in a celebration of good times shared. They are about love and life and light.
Mary Wesley deftly describes a splendid funeral in ‘The Vacillations of Poppy Carew‘ as well as the dazed state you can be in when organising one; the funeral at the start of ‘The Crow Road‘ is quite literally explosive, while the whole premise of ‘Harold and Maude‘ was about celebrating life.