And so Alma finally passed away, sweetly confused and listening to Perry Como. Nothing in her life became her like the leaving it. And flights of angels sing her to her rest.
I am not, on principle – though while I'm in mourning I'm damned if I can remember what that principle is – a watcher of Coronation Street, but there are those around me who are, so I somehow know what's happening. You can follow a good soap from another room. Like rich cooking, its ingredients stay in the air a long time, getting into curtains and penetrating walls. Out of respect to Alma, though, I sat and watched.
I have always liked Alma. A fragility thing. She has the face of a woman doomed to die betimes, and thus she touches on a profound male dread. In the catalogue of women a man is bound to hurt, Alma is the one you know you will feel worst about. She seems to have no defences against all you are going to throw at her. And now she's gone forever. Dead as earth.
The actual moment of her passing I missed. Couldn't take it. But I held myself together tolerably well for the funeral. A humanist affair, mourners in T-shirts, overseen by a secular officiant with a plain manner, much like someone selling you a mortgage, though with less gravitas. Ken, of course, delivered the address, and Audrey read the nation's best-loved poem, the one exhorting us not to stand at the dead man's grave and weep because he isn't there and doesn't sleep, but has become the thousand winds that blow and something or other on the snow.
In fact, since Alma was cremated, there was no grave to stand and weep at anyway. It's time someone did an ashes version.
I can't say I care for humanist funerals. Or for cremations, come to that. The two often go together, presumably because it's not so easy to be irreligiously matter-of-fact with the earth's forgetful jaw yawning black and empty at your feet. No discreet curtain. No electronic organ music. Just the disgrace of dirt and decay.
The last humanist cremation I attended in the flesh was my aunt's, a woman I had been close to and loved dearly as a boy but had not seen for many years. The not seeing was probably my fault, so you can add a pinch of guilt to whatever I say next. But what grieved me most about her funeral was how little provision it made for grief. We wept individually, of course, but the service itself, if you could call it a service, was sorrowless.
Tasteful, that was the word for it; the extracts from humanist works well-chosen, the music sweet, the demeanour of all participants impeccable. But it was hard to believe that anything much of animal moment was happening. Maybe it wasn't. Just one more dead person. Yes, she was someone to me and to her sister and to her husband, but who were any of us in the great scheme of things?
I know what I want from a funeral. I want desolation. Howl, howl. If it truly doesn't matter whom we burn or bury next – for we are but a mote in creation's eye – then that is all the more terrible for the dead and all the more desolating for those of us left standing. The end of a life, if we believe a life has meaning, is a dreadful event. The end of a life, if we believe a life has no meaning, is a more dreadful event still. Twist it how you like, death is neither decorous nor rational nor humane.
Then, after the desolation, should come that something else we feel for in the dark. Not comfort, not consolation, not even the peace that passeth all understanding. Something more like grandeur. At last, if we have been allowed to feel the enormity of a single lost life, there may follow a conviction of the grandeur of all lives. But nothing follows if we don't first find words for the magnitude of our despair.
And for this you need the psalms and liturgies of the great religions. Never mind what you think of religion the rest of the time – to hell with consistency – if you're going to die big, you have to die rocked in a religious vocabulary.
I don't want Ode to a Skylark read over me, together with a snatch from Brahms' Clarinet Quintet and Humphrey Bogart saying "play it again, Sam." I don't want to be lowered into the ground like a reluctant guest on Desert Island Discs, with my favourite book (other than Shakespeare) coming down after me. Leave me and my tastes out of it, I want the words of God.
There's a wonderful description, in Dickens' Hard Times, of the death of one who in life had barely been alive. "The light that had always been feeble and dim behind the weak transparency, went out; and even Mrs Gradgrind, emerged from the shadow in which man walketh and disquieteth himself in vain, took upon her the dread solemnity of the sages and patriarchs."
Faultless, that invocation of the King James Bible. For the language of the Authorised Version – before we ironed what was epic out of it to make it "relevant" to a cloth-eared age – aggrandises every life at the moment of its extinction.
And now I remember what my objection to soap operas is. They shrink the space around us in life, deny us our dread solemnity in death, and send us to eternity in the arms of Perry Como.Reuse content