DEATH ISLAND

DEATH ISLAND

The island of Arran, which is a magic and beautiful island in the firth of Clyde, is becoming for me an island of death, as we have attended 7 funerals there. The cemetery is on a hillside opposite the lovely Holy Island and the scenario is so striking it resembles a film scene. I was on Arran last week accompanying John to a memorial service for his brother-in-law, Howard Driver.

The first of these 7 funerals I attended was of John’s mother, and as I stood in a wind swept storm, sheltering my two daughters, my stepdaughter and my small son under the outstretched wings of my black coat, watching the coffin being lowered into its last resting place by her second husband, son, son in law, nephew and older grandsons (all of whom were over 6 feet tall and sombre in their formal blacks,) I reflected that the lady has certainly not lacked handsome men to send her off into the afterlife.

This was at that time one of very few funerals I had attended in my life. My maternal grandfather had died when I was about 7 or 8. I had heard the telephone ring one night, and my mother weeping, and I had guessed what had happened. My father came to tell me, but he could not bring himself to utter the dread words, so as he fumbled for an appropriate phrase, beginning, I am sorry to tell you that your grandfather has… has passed away, and I thought, what does that mean, so I asked, is he dead? My father said Yes, and I understood that I would never see him again and knew that we were mortal. I recall that although I was sorry and would miss him, I did not weep. I was the only one of his grandchildren to attend the funeral (the others were in Canada and this was before the age of easy air travel.) As people gathered in my grandmother’s sitting-room, I heard her remark that I was his favourite grandchild and even at that tender age I knew that she ought not to have said this, and more than likely it was untrue: I was probably just the one he saw the most. The only other thing I remember about that occasion was that I was sent to a neighbour whom my grandmother and mother criticised for her meanness while the actual committal took place, and when the icecream-van came and she bought her own daughter an ice-cream cone, but not one for me, I saw what they meant.

Then decades passed and I was fortunate that apart from my grandparents, everyone I loved still walked the earth.

In your youth, you tend to go to funerals either of elderly relatives who seem to you in your ignorant folly so aged that you do not see in their death any pattern that your own life will follow, or of real tragedies, where youths have died of misadventure. As you get older, you begin to attend the funerals of your parents’ generation : but it is still a shocking moment when you stand in the church for a contemporary.

There are various points where your loss is brought home to you. Writing to the principal mourner trying to come to a just and insightful conclusion about the deceased; being truthful so that a credible portrait emerges of the departed but still gives comfort can be a delicate operation and you may come to realise that you did not know the deceased that well; or that you depended on her or him more than you understood. But whatever you feel, one thing you know for certain is that it’s too late now. If you haven’t resolved any disagreements, that opportunity is lost.

I am always distressed when I first glimpse the actual coffin. It is so small. How come the life and vitality of the deceased had been reduced to this insignificant container?

The music is generally unbearably poignant. When we scattered my mother’s ashes on the seashore on Lewis and Rory walked slowly along the waterline playing on his saxophone, When A Man Loves a Woman, by Percy Sledge – the first time Sarah his wife had ever heard him play, – I was moved. When we were in church on Arran at the funeral of John’s stepfather, we were standing among his children as the first hymn was played. They were distressed and unable to participate, so John beside me lifted up his voice and sang on their behalf and I realised for the first time what a good voice he has.

When you come to the final phrases; Our dear brother here departed; dust to dust and ashes to ashes; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life; there is comfort in the age-old words although you wonder how many of the people standing there actually believe this. I myself feel that the mysteries of the afterlife have not been revealed to us, but I have hope and belief that I will see my relatives and friends in the afterlife, even if it is not in the form offered by christianity.

When someone whom I had found exceptionally difficult in life died, I felt a relief (though I was sorry for their sake that their life had been cut short). Someone who had loved the person said it was nice to feel they were now in heaven. I thought to myself, how could it be heaven if they were in it. I am bound to record that my view has changed and I can see that I need to learn to be more tolerant and forgiving, otherwise I myself will not pass through the pearly gates. How could I be fit for any kind of paradise if I were still carrying around my grievances from decades previous?

John’s family had organised Howard’s funeral extremely well. It was an occasion where everyone, whatever their history, was made warmly welcome. My safety and comfort had been carefully considered. I felt cherished and valued by the family, for which kindness I was thankful.

Funerals like these, where the family has put the needs of other mourners before their own, are humbling occasions but you come away feeling uplifted.

Go in peace, Howard.

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About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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