Gravely Done – reflections on a burial now and then #1000voices

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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22 Responses to Gravely Done – reflections on a burial now and then #1000voices

  1. tlryder says:

    Thanks so much for being willing to blog about this. My mother died two months after I turned 14, and my father not quite a year later. My mom’s funeral was open casket. Walking up to the casket was one of the hardest things I think I have ever done in my life. With my dad, my foster caregivers wouldn’t allow me to view the casket. This was not the kindness that they thought it was. My mother’s death was painful, but the finality of it all brought a closure that it took me years to achieve with my father. It is our first instinct to try to shield our children from pain, but grief can’t be escaped, only denied in ways that aren’t very healthy. It’s incredibly hard to walk up to the casket or watch the casket go down into the ground. I think it’s necessary work for a full, healthy life.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Can I start off by saying how sorry I am for your loss, Geoff. It’s a brave writer who can pen something so poignant on the wave of heartache. I’m fascinated with cemetery’s (possibly the fantasy author in me!) but I also find them strangely comforting. I love to wander through the stones and imagine who the people were and what their unique story is. Loss, grief and funerals are all a part of the circle of life but it’s our happy memories that keep us smiling. Hugs xx

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ritu says:

    What an insightful post…. or funerals are always cremation so I have not experienced a burial. In India it is all very raw, watching the body have wood stacked around it, and the son physically lighting the funeral pyre. Here it’s all about that curtain. But we always have the coffin come home first before that final journey, and an open casket then for all to pay their respects. I find this the hardest thing. The first funeral I actually attended was of a cousin of mine. It was around 13 years ago so I wasn’t that young. We’d experienced a lot of death in our family, as you would in a large clan, but I wasn’t subjected to the funeral part, as kids didn’t go, then as I grew older, I was either at university, the funerals were abroad or I’d got married and was quite far away.
    It was a deep, scary experience, seeing the body, not least because rigor mortise had set in before they were able to lay him with his mouth shut. But the pure grief and emotions that everyone else was showing was tough to handle.
    Since then I’ve been to a few others…
    But another difference is that we never keep the ashes. They get taken to India, or some such significant place, and get scattered. So there is never really anywhere close to go, to see your loved one’s resting place. You could think that as they were scattered, there is a bit of them wherever you go, as they are part of the earth again, but it’s not the same…
    All I know is when it’s my time, I’d like to have my ashes scattered somewhere here, in the UK, so my children can go there if they wish, to remember me.

    Sorry for the long ramble Geoffles!!!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Erika Kind says:

    Thought-provoking, Geoffle! There is one thing I told my kids: “I want to be cremated and don’t dare to put me on a cemetery. That is not where I spent my time as long as my body was alive. That is not the place I want anyone to feel obliged to go to and even worse, to care and spend money for something I don’t even notice anymore – a grave. Take my ashes and spread them at a place of which you know I love to be and whenever you think of me I will be closer than I could be on any cemetery.”

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Mary Smith says:

    A thoughtful, thought-provoking post, Geoff. In Scotland it’s only quite recently women started going to the graveyard and burial. They would go to the church service then home to prepare the funeral tea. I guess they said their goodbyes before the coffin was taken away.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. willowdot21 says:

    Interesting post Geoff, I don’t like burials. I have organised my funeral, entrance to the Queen of Sheba!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jan says:

    A very poignant post. The last burial I attended was for a six year old. No one could watch the casket being lowered.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A wonderfully written post about a subject many of us try and avoid talking about, Geoff. Graveyards hold a fascination for me as well and, like you, I’ve often stood in front of a grave and wondered what kind of life the person buried in the ground, had. A few years ago I got rather worried after realising that the first or second grave I came across always had the date of death as my actual Birthday. Put me off from visiting graveyards for some time, until my Mother’s funeral last September. Now, it doesn’t happen anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. trifflepudling says:

    Sorry to hear you have obviously lost a family member. A burial is a very hard thing, and hope you are feeling a bit better about it all now. For my part, I was quite convinced and devastated enough with my parents for the cremation to bring it home quite enough, thank you! My mother is now with her parents, and my father is scattered on the old family farm, which is where I would like to go when the time comes. Mummy lost both her parents by the time she was 19 and so it seems right she went with them, and Daddy loved the farm and the countryside in general, so he is happily in the fields, and maybe blowing down to the local for a pint in the evenings. We do a walk in the area every year near his birthday and remember him (last time I put down some Waitrose rosemary (for remembrance) as I thought it would blend in better than flowers!) It’s true you don’t see the burial or the flames, but you do get to see and handle the ashes, pretty sobering. I did visit some old family graves (18 and 19 centuries) near the farm but they kind of felt rather meaningless even though I knew who the people were. It was very interesting reading the replies to this post too. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ali Isaac says:

    I dont think we should hide children away from such important events of life and death… we’re doing them no favours. As ‘modern’ parents, we’re way too overprotective of our kids. I am always shocked at the number of helicopter parents constantly hovering and interfering in everything their children do, even their play. These kids grow up with a completely unbalanced attitude in life.

    You’re right, too… burial does seem more final in some ways. Personally, I like the way the vikings did it, now that’s what I call a send off!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Charli Mills says:

    It’s a courageous act to allow our children to experience something we know to be so painful, yet part of the process of living. Such early pain may indeed create empathy, which we need more of in this world. You write beautifully, exploring our own battle with grief over the finality of that dirt and the photos show how even our final markers are attempts to beautify death. Of course, I’m quite taken with the idea that you discovered your great-grandfather’s grave and not that far from your home. I’ve met some who don’t even know the names of great-grandparents. Thank you for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. 49lilykatz says:

    I am sorry for your loss, Geoff. Your photography and writing are both equally beautiful. Also, I’m struggling with when and if to bury my husband’s urn – he was cremated in February, 2016 after his untimely death. Thanks for giving me some food for thought. Burial is awful, but maybe it does bring some acceptance of the finality of death, and the value of life for the living.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Whew that’s such a difficult conundrum Lily. I’m sorry to hear about your loss. I found with my parents the pain doesn’t exactly diminish- it can catch you at any time – but the passing years wrap it in new experiences. A sort of bandage of new memories that cover the rawness of it all. It’s still there but mostly you’re protected from it. Oddly I don’t want to lose the visceral nature of losing them now. It reminds me how important how important they were to me. But I’m grateful to my hardwiring self that my mind mostly deals with it for me and we move on. Best Geoff

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Autism Mom says:

    Lovely Geoff. We were there for the internment of my aunt this summer and you’re right about how hard it is. My father was buried in a military cemetery and they do not do an internment ceremony so we did not see that. Maybe that was easier, but there is something to be said for the closure of seeing the process to the end, I think. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

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