Poignant things, graves. I went to a family funeral the other day, this one involving a burial. There’s something powerful and almost overwhelming about burials, putting the body in the ground which I don’t feel with a box slipping behind a curtain. It’s that bit more real somehow, seeing the hole, the earth, the deep finality of it all, whereas the box behind the curtain could merely be a magic trick. You don’t see the flames after all. I’m sure the identity of the deceased, their age at death matters more but, given a level playing field, the burial is intrinsically very thought provoking.
When we buried dad and then mum, the most sombre parts of both ceremonies were the actual interments. For the rest we set out deliberately to celebrate a life well lived. I didn’t want sadness; that wouldn’t reflect the two people who brought such joy. Standing at the graveside I saw my family struggling with their emotions. There was something really visceral about watching the coffins being lowered. Did my children really need to go through this?
Maybe that is why cemeteries, especially old cemeteries hold a fascination for me. Those grand tombs among the over grown trees and touching displays of flowers. What did those people watching experience? I visited just such an ancient cemetery the day before the funeral (the pictures here are from that visit) and stood by a grave that was well over 100 years old and wondered at the thoughts passing through the men and women watching that coffin being lowered just as much as I wondered at the thoughts engulfing the watchers the next day.
You see the grave I visited belonged to my great grandfather, Benjamin Francis who died in 1902. He is interred in West Norwood cemetery which is no more than a long mile form where I now live. And we found his grave because in among the papers that emerged after mum died was the small booklet, the order of service of his funeral.
Taking his name and the date he was buried to West Norwood they produced a ledger which showed exactly where his grave was.
What do I know about this man? He was a dressmaker with shops in Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street. He made wedding gowns for royalty apparently, albeit I imagine quite minor. He invented a cutting machine for paper patterns so they could be mass produced to satisfy the needs of seamstresses wanting to copy the latest Paris fashions. He was reasonably wealthy though what his position in the multifaceted strata of Edwardian societal was I know not. Upper middle class? Maybe.
What I do know is that his son, Percy, my grandfather, was 12 when Benjamin died. Percy was one of two boys – his eldest brother Bernard – and a girl, May. I never knew any of these people. They died many years before I was born. My grandfather died when mum was also 12.
As with my watching children at their grandparents graves, I can imagine how bloody awful that must have been for my grandfather. And I know from what she said how bad it was for mum when her father died.
I was 49 when dad died and yet shovelling soil into that hole was one of the grimmest of acts I had to undertake at that time. How much worse to be old enough to understand and yet too young to have enjoyed the myriad of experiences growing up alongside ones parents can allow.
Yet by all accounts my grandfather fared perfectly well despite that loss, as, indeed, did my mother. There’s a quiet courage in such survival for one so young, in getting on with it. It breeds a stoicism, I think, and also an ability to understand others’ pain from such losses. Maybe it increases the levels of empathy.
Part of me wanted to spare my family from the chilling experience of standing by a graveside yet, thinking about it now I wonder if it isn’t almost necessary, a way of saying a proper farewell. It brings home, in no better way that there’s life and there’s death and they are all part of a continuum. It is, at its best, the first step on a long road, which some may never travel successfully, to some sort of accommodation with one’s loss. And to the healing that comes from perspective.
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