Ashes to Ashes

Firstly I should apologise for the break in transmission. After romping through 50 posts in about three months, I suddenly hit a blog wall after my father’s day post. I’ll now be making an effort to post a bit more frequently again but perhaps not as regularly as I started off.

My thoughts these past two weeks have been around funerals as I help to plan one for my dear departed friend Dougie (See Queen Bitch on April 11th for more about the Dougster). These were once such grim and depressing affairs that as a child I was always excluded. I cannot even remember my grandad’s funeral taking place. I remember well the afternoon he died (A Sunday in September 1971) as we were enjoying a late summer’s day in the garden. The funeral, I guess, happened soon after but I cannot even recall the gathering of the clans at nan’s house – which was just a few doors away from ours – or any sort of wake. I do know that there was no question of me attending.

Likewise, in 1975 my beloved great auntie Flo died. I certainly recall when the news arrived. We were all upset for this was the aunt we spent every summer holiday with and she was associated with joy and relaxation. I remember putting the dog’s cushion on the window sill and burying my face into whilst the tears streamed down my face. My mum was devastated too as Flo was like her other mother, having lived with her for part of the war. And I do remember when my parents headed to Norfolk for her funeral, and I held a slight resentment I was forbidden to go with them.

In fact you would have to fast forward until around the early to mid-eighties when I first went to a funeral. I was thrown in at the deep end too as it was a full-blown catholic burial. Mrs Murphy was the mother of my friends Malachy and Sandra and she died far too young. I dug out my suit, probably not used since leaving the sixth form a few years earlier, and borrowed my dad’s black tie. I then endured an hour long service in the little Catholic church in Cheshunt before heading off to the cemetery to stand around the grave and watch the coffin be lowered into the ground. I believe it was a wet and gloomy day. Indeed it was everything the clichéd film and television funerals would have us believe a funeral should be like. It was actually the one and only time I have been to a burial. Needless to say the wake afterwards was all that should be expected of such a thing and the burgeoning alcoholic in me kept pace with the large Irish contingent around me.


The next few funerals were for elderly family members and, though cremations, were generally traditional with the mourners in black, shedloads of flowers and much grief. A few moments stand-out such as when my great uncle, a former DI in the Metropolitan police, was being driven down Canning Road where he lived, a number of officers from Blackstock Road station appeared on the back door in uniform and saluted the hearse as it passed. And as we drove through North London’s busy streets, my uncle who was driving us in his car and was a former Military Police driver, calmly pulled out at every junction and held the traffic until the cortege passed. This was the eighties and not a single horn was sounded or an angry voice raised. In fact bus drivers removed their hats. I dread to think what might happen today if the same thing was tried.

And that was how things progressed through the 80s and 90s. The funerals I attended remained traditional although perhaps brightened by the prospect of meeting rellies not seen a while. The after service parties at least seemed to get lighter and more fun. For me, I suppose the turning point came in 2001 with the funeral of Richard Gentle, my friend and mentor. I guess this would have been the first funeral I attended in sobriety too which may have altered my thinking dramatically. Nevertheless, despite a fairly traditional religious service, it was attended by an estimated 650 people. As the eulogies demonstrated, these people were here to pour out their love for Richard and to celebrate his life more than mourn his death. The party at the community centre afterwards was filled with laughter as people shared their Richard stories. This instilled a change in me.

Funeral 1

Of course, you cannot impress your own notions on everyone else’s funerals. My militant atheism must be throttled back if the lamented guest of honour kept their faith.  When my dad died in 2009 we – with my mum’s blessing – kept the service simple. Importantly we did away with hymns for there is nothing more depressing than the mumbled refrain of half a dozen mourners singing gleefully whilst the rest just join in at the chorus or mime throughout. Far better to sit and listen whilst the experts sing and my sister and I took great pains in choosing the music. I still smile when I remember us leaving the chapel to the joyful cheer of Louis Armstrong singing Red Sails in the Sunset.

Eight years later, when my mum followed my dad, we dispensed with the last vestiges of tradition. Although still in a crematoria chapel it was in the bright, fresh and newly opened Cromer crematorium. We asked everyone to come dressed in colours and leave the black at home. I led the service myself as I saw no point in some vicar or even a humanist celebrant talking about my mum if when they had never met her whilst she was alive. I tried to keep the eulogy tinged with merriment and drowned in love. Mum didn’t love music with the passion that dad did but we still chose songs that mattered too her. I think it went well and was respectful of my mum whilst a world apart from the funerals she was used to attending.

At least with our own funeral plans Hazel and I can do just as we please. In fact we have. One secret dread of ours that we should depart together in some freakish accident and whoever landed the responsibility of organising our farewell would send us off with half a dozen hymns and that bloody passage about God having lot of rooms (Apologies if I offend my religious friends here). So we have sorted ours. Planned, paid for and all written down (Obvs we don’t have the dates yet but as I do I’ll update the folder). We have a plot in Colney Wood green cemetery where our ashes will be planted without a headstone. It overlooks a pond though why I am particularly concerned about where I spend eternity is a bit moot as I shall be nothing but dust by then. And the celebration in the hall at the Greenacres site will be dominated by music (Spoiler alert – if you wish to be surprised when you attend my farewell party, stop reading now). My ashes – preburned in private – will enter to the sound of Horslips’ Daybreak. I was going to use Trouble With A Capital T but since this has been my ringtone for the last 15 years or so I felt the celebration might be interrupted as people search for my mobile. Then part way through you get to watch a slide show of photos to a soundtrack of Freebird (All 9 minutes 10 seconds of it) and air guitars are to be encouraged. Finally, as you follow my ashes up to the woods for planting, you will be entertained by I Shall Be Released; the Tom Robinson Band version, probably the greatest Dylan cover of all-time.

And so to the funeral that has set me thinking about funerals. Later this week I will meet with his niece to plan Dougie’s send-off. My extravagant ideas will have to be tempered a little bit to ensure all parties are happy with the service but I will make certain that the funniest, sometimes campest, cheekiest, loveliest man I knew gets a suitable send off. No spoilers here though. You will have to be there in person!

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