What I liked best about my father’s funeral was the double line of his comrades from the Great War, lined up at the top of the churchyard. Kind and nice things must have been said but I was so deep in rage and pain that I remember only that the vicar seemed to suggest that if he was a very good boy, could he get into the kingdom of heaven. The tone and the inference infuriated me.
When my mother died 20 years later, I rode in the car with her youngest sister and my sister while they told me what a pain in the neck I was. It clarified for me that I would infinitely rather be me than either one of them so when the presiding priest, who didn’t know any of us, asked my sister if she’d like to speak and she did that “Oh I couldn’t possibly” thing, I stepped forward, Biblical quote in my handbag, determined to thank my mother and her neighbours who had made her last years so enjoyable. A retired RN type said he couldn’t imagine why we played a black communist (Paul Robeson) at her passing so I said “Because he was her favourite singer. Thank you so much for coming” and walked away.
I am never sure whether the service is for the departed or those left behind but few are as honestly emotional as the one in Four Weddings and a Funeral, where love and loss stand shoulder to shoulder. The form bothers me but so does the lack of form. The last one I committed myself to was for my friend Jiz (see annalog 18 October 2016) and typically she had left instructions as to how she wanted it done.
In ringing a friend recently to enquire about his health, I mentioned I had seen the obituary for Pam Powell: she was a great age and I hoped her end was peaceful. “I’m going to the funeral” he said (he was her hairdresser). “Why don’t you come with me ? It’s at St. Margaret’s Westminster, where she went every Sunday.” So I did. I met Pam Powell once and Enoch Powell twice and I cherish the memories. But nothing could have prepared me for how this felt.
The church is not big, simple and rather beautiful and if you look it up, you’ll see it is very old. The presiding clergy made everything sound as if they meant it. The gathering was not enormous but it was my sense that those who were there, went because they wanted to.
For one reason or another, they liked Pam Powell and they wanted to wish her well at her passing. Family members contributed while the eulogy was offered by Enoch Powell’s archivist, a barrister. And we should all have somebody like that speak at our ending. He was informative and amusing. Early on he said (I paraphrase obviously) “Don’t think of Pam as just a political wife. She was politically committed in her own right and she wanted to be of service to her country.” Oh yes please.
Along the way there were hymns we all knew well, and the choir sang a setting of the 23rd Psalm we used to sing in the school choir. The language of the invocations and prayers were those of the old church and the King James Bible and I had a quiet eye fill over my parents who would have loved the sweet gravity of it all. The last of the three hymns was I Vow to Thee My Country which has all sorts of meanings as we change and the world changes and anyway the cadence of the opening catches the throat and the heart. And then it was done, the flower decked coffin was born away to private interment, so we filed out, spoke to each other and I left to come home in the cold.
But it stayed with me. I felt privileged to have been there, and oddly comforted. The form was not rigid but held you, making room for what you believed and where you stood, and yet inclusive. There was no over egging of any part of the pudding. And I realised I had dressed for the rite as seriously as if it invited some kind of future. And maybe it did.