My father died last week. He was a good man who served in the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War before running the family business in Beirut with integrity and considerable bravery. He had a good life, but it's still a shock when you realise that somebody is no longer there.
He died in the Lebanon and I had to fly there for the funeral. Normally, funerals in Lebanon consist of three days of condolences, during which the family sit in a big room lined with chairs while people file in and out whispering words of regret. My sister had thankfully decided to restrict proceedings to a single day. Arriving at the church hall in downtown Beirut, we settled down for a long day of nodding and handshaking.
People started to drift in and out, and my sister, who now runs the family company, would quickly whisper a briefing to me about each arrival. It was strangely comforting, with people appearing from every corner of my father's life and talking quietly about their memories of him. After five hours, however, we were starting to droop – I don't know how people survive three days.
We retired to the new Four Seasons Hotel on the Beirut seafront. After a couple of stiff gin and tonics, we were ready for the service. This was in the All Saints' Church round the corner, a church for which my great-grandfather donated the land and in which I was christened. Back then, the building was on the seafront. We used to swim off the rocks below. No longer, however. The bay had been filled in with the rubble of war-damaged Beirut and the church was now dwarfed by huge, soulless blocks of flats that entirely surrounded the little stone building and blotted out the hot Levantine sun.
The church was packed. I sat under the stained-glass windows dedicated to various members of my family. My father had rescued the windows from the church when civil war broke out. He had stored them at home throughout the troubles, before having them put back when the church was re-consecrated in 1992. I read a passage from Ephesians. If I'm honest, I didn't understand a word of it but I read it loudly and clearly, looking up at the congregation just like my dad used to tell me to. My sister started to weep and I put my arm round her in a slightly rigid manner: Sadly, 10 years at British boarding school make it very difficult for me to deal with any public display of emotion.
The service over, family and close friends were to follow the cortege to the Anglo-American cemetery where several relatives were buried. I hopped into a car driven by my childhood friend, George. He is a Lebanese Maronite and, like many Lebanese, finds it almost physically impossible to drive slowly. I could see several cars following the coffin longing to overtake. We lost the hearse in Beirut's infernal traffic and ended up outside the wrong graveyard – one for the Armenian community. After frantic enquiries, we got our bearings and found the right place, a beautiful little oasis hidden from the frantic chaos of modern Beirut.
The sun was setting on the umbrella pine trees and clumps of vivid magenta bougainvillea that filled the cemetery. The priest's voice blended with the cacophony of cicadas and drifted over the scene. One by one, we picked up handfuls of earth and dropped them on the coffin, before the elderly gravedigger methodically filled in the hole. We stood in silence for a moment before leaving my father to sleep for ever in the land he loved so much.