Sunday, 20 September 2015

Our Mother, Val Doonican & Omar Sharif

The Urge to Dignify Death

After a death comes a funeral, pretty much anywhere in the world.The urge to dignify the passing somehow means that we try to despatch the departed loved one with a ritual. In Victorian times, certainly in London, it  took as long as possible and 'death-bed' scenes were strung out with weeping and wailing. There were specific words, rituals and keepsakes known as 'memento mori'.

Unless you work in a funeral parlour or something, the language of death, arriving right slap in the  rawness of your grief, comes as an experience both surreal and funny.

The first thing that happens, in Britain at any rate, is that your family doctor certifies that the recently departed is actually dead, and there's nothing suspicious about it.

The Doctor's Jaunty Tie
In our case, the family doctor had been calling daily throughout the final week of my mother's life. The visit was strangely similar to the day before's, except that he arrived wearing a dark blue tie instead of his usual jaunty scarlet one.

Naturally, my sister and I wanted new outfits for the funeral. Even when you know someone's going to die, there's a reticence about going out to choose your special frock before the event. After our mother passed way, without thinking we arranged this ludicrous schedule, making sure that when we felt that urge to shop, one was always available to stay at home.

Feeling That Urge to Shop
 That's true grief, we discovered. It's not about how sad you feel or what a huge gap someone's left in your life. It's about the little things. Forgetting that you can now go shopping,

Much-Travelled Posy
That week I learned, too, about floral artistry, and the unique terminology that goes with it.  For example, you don't order a wreath but a funeral posy. If you order for a funeral on Dartmoor when you live in North London, Interflora doesn't actually drive 200 miles with said posy, they just charge you as if they had.

Another thing that made us fall about laughing was a Cockney superstition that my Nana, born and bred in London's 'East-End', taught us. If you hear of a death, then the next two people you hear of in the same predicament will go to Heaven with the first one.  So for example, our local butcher died this week and will now go to the abode of the angels arm-in-arm with the critic Brian Sewell and the much-loved writer of erotic fiction, Jackie Collins.

Clearly this sweet old fairy tale dates back to the time when London was a collection of small communities centred around the docks, the alleys etc. To Ma and me, it didn't matter a jot that there were millions of people in the world and hundreds of deaths per day. We still applied the theory, to gales of laughter, every time we heard of a death in the news or in our part of town.

So for what it's worth, my mother, who died on 2 July 2015, went to Heaven with Val Doonican and Omar Sharif. And boy, won't she remind us of that one next time we see her.

  Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on;
So sing as well.

Joyce Grenfell 

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