My wife died earlier this month. We knew it was coming. A lump in the breast begat bone tumours, begat liver lesions. In the end, cancer in the brain carried her off quickly. A ‘good death’.
I keep staring at my wedding ring and its redundant metallurgy. In one of our final lucid conversations my wife urged me to be ‘sensible’. No tantrums. I don’t rear up when another call centre executive offers me condolences for her ‘passing’.
Someone exercising similarly benign thoughtlessness called me a single parent recently, and that didn’t feel quite right either. Rather, I have entered a world of Victorian melodrama. I am the widower. I feel like Colin Firth in Nanny McPhee, staring perplexedly at the grate, but without the happy ending.
My wife and I were married for 20 years. It was a loving and fruitful union. Six children. Six still-young children. In a Britain of shrinking families and elderly couples enjoying unprecedented longevity, I am an anachronism twice over.
Make that thrice. Because, when it comes to the conventions which increasingly govern contemporary funeral rites, I am ill at ease. This is not about our Catholicism. My wife will have a Requiem Mass. But I think the choices we made when she was alive about the ceremony which will mark her death are logical, not theological.
For instance, I do not want to give a eulogy. There is nothing modern, accessible or inclusive about me trying to stand up before a funeral congregation and tell them what my departed wife meant to me. Yet several friends have asked: ‘Will you say something?’ It’s as if by saying no I risk being insufficiently ostentatious in my grief.
I tried arguing that such a contribution would risk self-indulgent prating, even if I could hold it together, which, in my case, I doubt. I remember the funeral of a lovely woman who gave my children horse-riding lessons. She had been under the same oncologist as my late wife and was survived by a boyfriend who had only known her for three years. He gallantly nursed her through a final illness. But he was utterly ill-suited to the task of summing up her life — in the round — before a congregation which included many mourners who were not close family or friends. There was no sense of who she was before they met. It was an encomium to himself.
At root, the modern funeral represents the privatisation of what, hitherto, was a public event. A funeral was one of the great punctuation marks in the life of a community. Open to all, imparting its lessons of Last Things to everyone, sharing a life story to a universal audience. But as soon as we start to treat funerals like a family ‘do’, where commemoration becomes a series of in-jokes or semi-private reflections, we close off the lives of others from that clear-eyed posthumous examination which only comes when their race is run. I am happy to leave it to the priest. It’s his gig. He will sum up my wife’s life, approaching that task not dispassionately, but at one step removed.
Then there’s the ‘celebration’ element. I have emailed friends and former colleagues with details of my wife’s funeral, politely asking them to leave their Hawaiian shirts and pink helium balloons at home. Black please, if you don’t mind. It’s unfair on children to insist that a funeral should mean rejoicing in a life now passed. Maybe grown-ups can handle the cognitive dissonance required in ‘celebrating’ a life rather than, you know, being all morbid. But I seriously doubt children can.
Wearing black gives people licence to be lachrymose. If you see someone blubbing outside a pub wearing a black suit and tie, you have a clue as to why. Treat a funeral like Ascot’s Ladies Day and not only does that trivialise death, but the spotlight of consolation shifts away from the family, where it would have been had the congregation dressed uniformly. My darling wife would not have demanded that tears be shed for her. But she was enough of a realist to know that they would be. She knew the difference between a wedding and a funeral, and would expect guests to dress to reflect that. She suspected that asking people to dress up in bright colours was one small step away from an injunction to ‘be jolly’.
There’s nothing funky about turning death into a fashion parade and a free-for-all of self-realisation. It is asinine and, if it inhibits the necessary catharsis of the grieving process, it may end up being a mental health time bomb. The old stuff — the black and the solemn — works because it distills the wisdom of ages.