We gathered around in the sunshine and watched the coffin being lowered into the freshly dug trench. Stratifications visible on the interior sides of the excavation showed that she was being laid to rest in shallet (compacted broken slate) and I felt sorry for whoever it was who had volunteered to dig it by hand. The 180-year-old graveyard was perhaps seven eighths full; her allotted plot was in a pleasant, even beautiful spot, far away from the cold shadow of the church, with a small, wind-bent hawthorn tree close by and panoramic view of the blue bay. I think some of those present will remember this dazzling September and our joyful singing at her funeral service and our blinking, whey-faced silence as the coffin was lowered into the ground for years to come.
After the service, the larger-than-expected congregation trooped 100 yards down the hill to the village pub, which had opened early for tea, coffee, sandwiches or something stronger for those feeling the urge. Although I had faced the seated congregation when I read Psalm 121 — ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’ — I hadn’t the presence of mind to lift up my eyes and notice who all the upturned faces were. And during the committal afterwards, heightened emotion precluded social curiosity. My eyes were, in any case, dazzled by the sun and tears made my vision faulty. So it wasn’t until I pushed open the pub door and plunged into the throng that I began the business of recognising, greeting and thanking people who in some cases I hadn’t seen for decades.
In the Old Testament book of Genesis it is reported that God agreed to spare the city of Sodom if 50 righteous men could be found to be living there. Given the reputation of the place, a worried Abraham haggled God down from 50 to just ten. Angels sent to ascertain the precise number were indecently propositioned by a disorderly and rapacious mob that quickly assembled outside their b&b. A riot was narrowly avoided only when their host offered it his two virgin daughters by way of modest recompense.
This wouldn’t have happened if Sodom were south Devon today. For the nativist working-class chapel culture thriving beneath the chi-chi occupation teems with righteous men and women who are shepherded by lay preachers of unimpeachable, nay, terrifying godliness. These chapel-going Devonians recognise a Christian when they see one, even when, like my mother, they hailed originally from somewhere ‘up the line’. Abraham wouldn’t even have had to haggle: he could have pointed to 50 gathered in the pub after my mother’s funeral alone.
So although I was one of those feeling the urge to take something stronger than tea or coffee, I had a word with myself and promised myself that I would hold off until they’d all paid their respects to a dear sister in Christ and returned to their fields and building sites. This decision was based not on fear but on respect. They are not without a sense of humour, these God-fearing chapel folk, but theirs is a sober culture. Continence of that order is beyond me; nevertheless I genuinely admire it.
Deliberately avoiding the bar, where, I noticed, some unrighteous relatives were already making the barman look sharp, I picked out one of these chapel folk, a giant of a man dressed in black who was standing alone nursing a soft drink in an absurdly small glass and who looked ill at ease. He extended a great paw, which I shook, then answered my question about how he was faring more literally than I expected by telling me he was bracing himself for a rectal examination. So I speculated knowledgeably on his behalf about whether it would be performed with an instrument of some kind or an actual finger and whether the finger would be sheathed in latex.
Then I spoke to another man, a tall and infinitely gentle lay preacher, and I made the mistake of reminding him about his late wife. He gulped, then burst into tears, then took one of my hands in both of his in an inarticulate and desperate expression of his love and support, and then he left.
After that, the urge for something stronger than tea or coffee overcame me and I accepted a large gin and tonic in what looked like a goldfish bowl on a stem from one of my unrighteous relatives giving the barman a workout. Which I immediately — somehow — managed to throw over myself. I returned to doing the rounds of the brethren with my gin-soaked suit trousers clinging coldly to my legs.
Retired farmer and church treasurer Roy was glad to put my mind at ease about the hole. It was indeed dug by machine. ‘Oh, don’t you worry. They can get in more or less anywhere, those little ones, these days,’ he said.