They cremated her, I celebrated her

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The Independent Online
ON A freezing winter's morning earlier this year, I went to an uncle's funeral, held at St David's, the small parish church of Llanddewi Rhydderch in Gwent. An impenetrable fog lay over the countryside that day, reducing the trees on the boundary of the churchyard to pale, stretching shadows. White frost rimed the skeletons of cow parsley. The fog muffled all the usual noises and, when you breathed it, tore a chill chasm down your throat.

A mile to one side of this church lies the farm where my uncle, my mother and their 10 brothers and sisters were born and brought up. A mile to the other is the farm where my uncle spent most of his working life.

Farming neighbours, many of whom had been at school 70 years ago with my uncle, crammed into the church in their dun-coloured overcoats.

I had never seen them without hats before. The familiar tweed caps that rode with them on their tractors, accompanied them to the Tuesday markets, saw them through their Saturday nights at the pub, had disappeared. The bare heads came as a shock.

In this same church, my uncle and all his brothers and sisters had been baptised. My mother had been married here more than 50 years ago. So had several others among the dwindling band of aunts, now perched insubstantially in the front pews of the tiny building.

The young priest, newly arrived in the parish, did not attempt a peroration. We sang 'Fight the Good Fight', with the good Welsh tenors nursing the last notes of each verse, reluctant to let them go. A cousin read two poems from my uncle's favourite book, Poets of the Landscape. At the end of the service, his grandsons, farmers too, carried his coffin out of the church on their shoulders, swaying steadily over the uneven ground to the grave.

The earth here is the same red earth that runs through all this border country into Herefordshire where my grandmother was born. Heaped by the grave, it made the only slash of colour in the muffled, blanketed land scape. Slowly, we filed past it, scooping up fragments of the frozen earth to drop on to the coffin.

What comforted me at this funeral was its inevitability. There was no question about where and how my uncle should be buried. His belonging to this place, leading his life inextricably entwined with this particular landscape, lent a positive sense of fitness to his funeral. The life led unequivocally to the death, the burial in this familiar place. The earth that surrounded him during his life subsumed him in his death.

This sense of fitness, of inevitability, is perhaps easier to achieve in country areas than in towns. Easier, too, in my uncle's generation than my own. We are a more rootless lot. Education, claustrophobia, marriage, work, a sense of adventure, a desire for freedom drive us increasingly away from our origins. We drift through our lives, no longer identifying ourselves with any particular landscape. We lose sight of where we came from. The price of this freedom is deracination. Where does this leave us when we die?

In crematoriums, it seems. Many more people are cremated rather than buried. Like us, crematoriums lack any sense of place. They mirror our condition. You find them signposted on the outskirts of towns, along with council refuse tips and light industrial sites.

The interiors of crematoriums are light and bright, pale oak woodwork, mock-leather benches, exactly the same in Berkshire as in Blackpool. Velvet curtains, poised like the jaws of some predatory animal, hang either side of the coffin. This is a building that sees only death, never baptisms or weddings. In it, you are in limbo.

The place matters, however much you try to persuade yourself of the unimportance of the corporeal body. However, it is occasionally possible to shake off the miasma of the crematorium. This is why, at half past four one May morning 15 years ago, I was climbing over a dog and her new puppies to get to my brother's gun cupboard.

It was a month or so after my mother's funeral. Following the cremation her ashes had been locked in the gun cupboard while we decided what to do with them. The crematorium nearest our home was in a town she never went to. That mattered, perhaps to a disproportionate extent, and the experience had to be exorcised.

Carrying the ashes, still in the crematorium's black plastic bag, I walked on that early May morning up the lane towards the mountains where all my childhood was spent. I passed the small valley where my mother and I had enjoyed picnic teas. I passed the place where we picked wineberries every August. I crossed over the path that led to the globe flowers and the wild orchids that we made a pilgrimage to each spring.

Just here my dog, who was with me, put up a fox, and the two animals streamed liquidly around the foot of the mountain I was climbing, the fox's tawny back melting into the fox-coloured background of last year's bracken.

It was fully light by now, and sunny and windy. It took two hours to climb to the top of the mountain, a route I had taken a hundred times before, past the gully where once we found a dead sheep, past the place where we built a beacon for the Queen.

At the top, all the familiar landmarks were laid out clear - the Usk river shining in sinuous curves, the bold tent-shape of the Blorenge mountain silhouetted against the sky, Skirrid Fawr with its humped back, Skirrid Fach marking the boundary of my uncle's farm land - and here I cast my mother's ashes to the wind, which whirled them out over the glittering valley.

A sense of loss is not quickly resolved, but when you feel that the ending of a life has been celebrated in the most fitting way possible, this goes a long way towards easing your sadness.

Mark Lawson will return next week.

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