Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 14 March 2009

Bright eyes

I thought no one else was going to turn up at the crematorium to wave Terry off. But as the seconds ticked closer to the appointed time, knots of ashen-faced mourners began to trickle in from the car park and congregate around the chapel doors. Then Terry arrived. He arrived in a cardboard box inside a wickerwork casket laid longitudinally in the back of the hearse. He’d been dead nearly a month. Lung cancer. Diagnosed ten days before he died. He was cleaning windows right to the end. Today would have been his 65th birthday.

Terry’s three brothers hoisted him in through the doors and the rest of us trooped in behind. The interior of the chapel disappointed me. Earlier, the ‘Civic Funerary Celebrant’ had told me that he didn’t really ‘do’ prayers. So I was looking forward to seeing what consolation, if any, our secular-minded state was prepared to sanction instead of the heavenly banquet and life eternal. I genuinely hoped it would have the courage of its lack of convictions and offer nothing whatsoever, not even a platitude. I hoped that the Civic Funerary Celebrant would stand in front of us, shrug his shoulders, and say, ‘Oh, well. Here today: gone tomorrow!’ And then pat his pockets and say, ‘Anyone got a light?’

But the chapel interior, with its polished wood, its big Gothic-style window and velveteen curtains ready to close discreetly around the casket, was exactly like a place of worship. The seamless, dark-suited piety of the civic funerary celebrant was exactly like that of a Protestant pastor. And the undertaker’s unctuous bow towards the casket as the curtains closed and Terry was conveyed on runners towards the furnace, accompanied by Simon and bloody Garfunkel singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, was exactly that of a long-standing, faithful church deacon.

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