The mental fruit of yet another sleepless night was that my mother was determined to arrange her funeral as quickly and as cheaply as possible. A friend had told her, she said, that the Co-op do a version called a ‘Simple Funeral’ for less than £2,000. Please would I look it up on the internet for her? The state-funded carer had been in and out already and she was washed and dressed and sitting in her electric recliner, wet hair combed back like a teddy boy, and in her eyes you could see her will burning brightly. I, on the other hand, had slept long and profoundly and was not yet fully returned from a very long way away. I was still in my pyjamas. A man galloping by on a horse, asked about it afterwards, might have thought it was my funeral she wanted me to arrange, not hers.
I got the web page up on her antique iPad. A Simple Funeral costs £1,895. I read out the more eye-catching selections from the ‘What’s included’ list. ‘If death occurs outside of normal working hours, you will be removed into the care of the Co-op, out of hours, at no extra cost,’ I told her. ‘That’s good,’ she said. ‘You will be prepared, cared for and dressed in a gown that matches the interior of your coffin,’ I said. Silence. Either the matching colour scheme was a matter of indifference to her or she hadn’t heard or comprehended. ‘You will be transported from the funeral home to the cemetery in a hearse at the appointed time of the service.’ ‘That’s good too,’ she said. I totally agreed. Her turning up at the church on the same day as everyone else would be a massive plus.
Before we got overexcited, however, I read out to her selections from the list of what was not included. ‘There will be no choice of the time and day of the funeral and certain times and days may be excluded,’ I said. ‘What?’ she said. ‘When it comes to the time and date of your burial, the Co-op decides,’ I said. ‘Ladies’ night?’ she said. ‘Decides,’ I said. I gave up. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said. ‘When they’ve got enough dead ladies, you all go on one huge pyre.’ ‘Anything else not included?’ she said. I glanced further down the list. ‘Embalming,’ I said. ‘Oh. Anything else?’ ‘Your loved ones will be unable to view your remains outside of working hours,’ I said. More than happy that her mortal remains won’t be interfering with anybody’s leisure time, she bade me ring the number and have a chat with a representative.
I had to speak because even with both hearing aids in, my mother sometimes can’t hear what people are saying on the phone. And even when she can hear, very often she can’t understand what they are saying. And if they are saying it in a strong regional accent you might as well forget it. Doreen hailed without a shadow of a doubt from the county of Lancashire. She asked me how I was today and how she could help me today.
I was ringing on behalf of my mother, who wanted to order and pay for the Co-op’s Simple Funeral, I said. In a tone ambiguously balanced between mournful and efficient, Doreen said she was happy to help. But first, if possible, she would like to confirm it with the lady in question. I handed over the phone. She wants to know why you want a funeral, I yelled. ‘Well,’ explained my mother to Doreen, ‘I’m afraid I’m not going to be alive for very much longer.’ Doreen sounded too young to actually believe in the reality of death, but she assured my mother that she accepted that not being alive soon was a perfectly valid reason for buying a funeral. ‘Now you take care,’ said Doreen, then the phone was passed back to me.
Doreen and I shot the breeze about coffins. Mum had said she wanted the most basic coffin available that would retain its shape in the rain. A friend of hers had gone to meet her Saviour in a coffin woven from banana leaves; another went in a knitted one. I told Doreen this. ‘No worries,’ she said. She could, of course, go for the banana leaves or the cardboard if we wished, she said, but the standard Simple Funeral coffin has a wood- effect, matt finish and gold-effect handles. Which sounded positively regal after the thought of going out in a giant egg box.
It was a lovely morning. After we’d booked her in for her hole in the ground, I suggested that she go and get some sun on her face in the conservatory. ‘Get some sun in the cemetery?’ she said indignantly.