The queue of mourners for the funeral today of Harold Percival stretched a long way out of the Lytham crematorium chapel where it was held and into the Lancashire rain. Huddled under umbrellas, hundreds of people unknown to the 99-year-old Second World War veteran answered the call to attend a funeral which would otherwise have been a desolate occasion.
Mr Percival, who had been a member of the ground crew of Bomber Command, died last month in a nursing home in Lytham. He never married and had no close family. A local branch of the RAF Association put out an appeal for people to come and pay their respects, and word spread on social media. Suddenly, Mr Percival’s funeral became an event.
It’s a touching story, but what does these strangers’ responsiveness to Mr Percival’s death tell us? That we are in the midst of a period of Remembrance surely has something to do with it. The war dead we honour every 11 November number so vastly that it can be difficult to relate to them as individuals. Mr Percival provided a point of connection which can sometimes be absent from the grand public statements made at the Cenotaph and elsewhere. He was both a person and a symbol.
It would be interesting to ask those who knew nothing about Mr Percival until a few days ago why they chose to spend a wet Monday morning this way. Clearly something within them stirred – that need to remember, and to honour, that is an inescapable part of our humanity. And maybe the honouring part, in the normal course of our lives, does not have enough of an outlet.
I think Mr Percival’s death also touches us for another reason – the light it shines on the loneliness, or at least the alone-ness, of so many old people. We all know about our ageing population. In 1981, there were just 2,420 people in England and Wales aged 100 and over. By 2012 the figure had reached 12,320. Those numbers will go on increasing. Who do these centenarians have left in their lives to care for them? Many will have outlived their children. Their friends will almost all have died off. They can’t look after each other.
At times like this I think of the older members of my family – men and women well into their 80s. Hardly a month seems to go by without one of them telling me about a funeral they have just attended. Another old friend has died. And I think to myself, when their time comes – who will be left to attend their funerals? Will they have reached a point when their neighbours and the local organisations they have been involved with appeal for mourners?
Perhaps the real lesson of Mr Percival’s death is not to wait until an old person has died before we get to know them. Who’s to say whether he would have welcomed a visit in his final years. But we know from old people’s charities that many old people would. No one should have a mourner-less funeral.