A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a castle on a mountain, reading a text message from my brother.
The news from eastern Spain wasn’t good. My grandfather had been hauling around his prostate cancer for a decade without significant discomfort. But it had spread, to his liver, pancreas, spleen, pelvis, soul, spare bedroom, both rear wheels of his mobility scooter and a tailor who made him a suit in 1995. He was, so said the text message, quite fucked.
And so it proved. One of the best people I’ve known was dead within a week, having held out long enough to be allowed home from hospital to see the cat I now fully expect to be held to account for his murder. I will see you hang, Mimi.
The upshot of this was a funeral.
What a risible, often despicable affair funerals are. Everyone wears black to show how sad they are instead of colour to celebrate a life well lived. Any man not in a suit and tie can expect mutters of disapproval. People sit in rows listening to a dirge that makes Enya sound like 2 Unlimited and if my references are dated that’s because you’ll all be doing this for me soon enough, so suck it up.
Normally you’re in a church or crematorium, and it was the latter in this case. A stained-glass scene of badly drawn people of all ages shambling towards an exploding Pacific atoll sat above an altar scattered with depressingly predictable ornaments and The Good Book. A coffin sat perpendicular to the altar, making a T, for ‘the invisible and the non-existent look very much alike’.
Two minutes before the service began, I was asked if I wouldn’t mind reading the opening bars of ‘Ecclesiastes’. It was made abundantly clear that personal hypocrisy would not be accepted as a factor in my decision.
Two minutes later, after the vicar had thrown a few Ian Brown-isms about, up I went. I droned words off a piece of paper into a microphone and I remember none of it. I’m amazed the book didn’t catch fire halfway through. Afterwards people with sad faces said I’d done really well and no-one had a clue what any of it meant.
Actually, Ecclesiastes 1 is apparently entitled ‘Everything Is Meaningless’, and looking at it now that’s not what the vicar had me read. I’d have appreciated the irony. Instead he had me read something more to his own taste, because it turned out the entire fandango was about him and his all-loving God.
Not for ‘Father Sammy’ any form of memorial service about a dead man who’d managed to pull a crowd of 50 people from across Europe to a furnace in the Spanish countryside two hour-long buses from the nearest airport. Sure, he mentioned how he’d met him a few months before his death and they’d hit it off. But this had merely been God’s plan to get the old boy back under the almighty elbow from which he’d crawled with his first coherent thought between the wars.
For a full 10 minutes a family of irreligious, heathen scum listened to a small Indian man explain passionately, if barely comprehensibly, what God has in store for us and why we ought to give a damn. I made out a handful of possible rewards and more than a few threats. He loves you, but never be under the impression the free will He doled out means you can turn your back on Him. Wouldn’t do you any good anyway, He’s everywhere. He sees every non-procreational wank, you dirty little shite you.
Two hymns were painfully mumbled through by people worrying that the body in the mahogany container would begin to rotate if we didn’t plough fields and scatter horseshit all about. A further diatribe from our purple-clad host, a last demand to return to the fold or spend eternity with Satan’s pitchfork up your hoop, and then a curious moment where the vicar flung drops of water from a small metal vessel onto the coffin for no reason I have words for.
And then we all filed out to the heinous strains of Glenn Miller as the real coffin containing the corpse – sorry, the shiny one’s just for display – was loaded into a back-room incinerator and my grandfather was set on fire.
Oh I’m sorry, am I being too impersonal? Don’t mind me, it must just be a coping mechanism. But it’s my choice to believe that he’d been gone since Tuesday and what was left had as much use to him as the colostomy bag he spent the last few weeks lugging about.
Feel free to see a point to this morbid, abstruse gathering. I prefer to believe the real memorial was in the bar we got drunk in the previous night, where we shared real stories of a man we’ll miss but who wouldn’t – really, who would? – want us to be sad that he only managed 89 years. He packed it in pretty sharpish when it became clear Santa Muerte had an unassailable lead in the Game of Life. Good work fella.
There are non-religious funerals, of course, like the humanist ones that turn you into fertiliser, though the service itself seems no less pointless to me. David Bowie chose a laudable nobody-there exit earlier in the never-ending party that is 2016, and fair play to him.
But as we cling to our fear of death by our yellowing fingernails we seem unable to shake these dismal Christian get-togethers. And of course, in this case, I have to admit that it was all the fault of the dearly departed who’d sorted out the set-list himself.
But in the 39 years I knew my grandfather he never once mentioned religion. His partner of 25 years confirmed this to me afterwards. He had to some extent been humouring Father Sammy in their recent meetings, while enjoying the curries he’d knock up in my grandfather’s kitchen. It seems he largely let him dictate the religiosity of the service simply so he could get Glenn Miller’s diabolical saxophone at the end, which I took as a personal affront. I’m fairly sure I heard chuckling from the box.
We all need something when we near the end though, don’t we? Some hope, something to cling to. Something ideally invented exactly for this purpose by subsequently rich men thousands of years ago, with less basis in fact than Rolf’s ‘new evidence’ as he bids to slip from the clutches of HMP Stafford. Is that really what we want for our collective epitaph? They were sane and rational for four score and ten but that lad with the scythe showed up and it all went a bit mumbo jumbo at the end there.
If there had been no funeral it seems unlikely any of us would have loved him any less now he’s gone. Mind you, without a funeral we couldn’t have enjoyed the low-level drama common to a British family: the daughter refusing to show up and threatening Home Office involvement if the body wasn’t repatriated to the UK before cremation, or the son, guilty at living just up the coast but always too busy to visit his father, furious that a grandson was asked to do a facile Bible reading instead of him. Leave it Jamie, he’s not worth it. Dum, dum, dum dum dum der-der-der-der.
Maybe some of you will die before me. If I’m on the guest list, I’ll show up and be just as fucking hacked off at the futility of funerals as ever. But I’ll keep it to myself. I’ll wear a suit and tie. I won’t sing the hymns. If you want me to do a reading clear it with everyone else first for Christ’s sake.
But when it’s my turn, if it so happens I’ve not made my wishes painfully clear by that point, do not have a funeral for me. Burn me or bin me on the day I die. At some point, when it’s convenient, go to the pub, go to the cricket, go to the park or the beach: somewhere, raise a glass. Remember that I wasn’t always the miserable bastard these words suggest; that I was sometimes tolerable company when you wanted or needed it; that I enjoyed giving and taking a laugh. That I was my grandfather, and many like him.
No ‘service’. No God. And no bloody Glenn Miller. Press the button, light the fire, and move on.