My aunt Carolyn died on 9th August of metastatic breast cancer, so today I went to her funeral in Tunbridge Wells. This was my first funeral, so I suppose I’m quite lucky that I’ve got to 29 without having to go to one before.
The English are funny about food. We went to my uncle’s house first of all, and my cousins put some bread, cheese and salad out as it was lunchtime. My mother told them that we’d all eaten already and that we didn’t want to look like gannets. This was a fib – we’d all driven a long way and were hungry. In a Mediterranean or Arab household, a guest is offered food and hospitality, and it’s very rude to refuse, even if the guest genuinely isn’t hungry. Since these are the sort of people I usually mix with, I accept food if it’s offered. In England, the opposite is the case: it’s rude to *accept* the offer of food because one doesn’t want to appear greedy and to put the host to any trouble. This is fine, but my cousins seemed genuinely to want to bustle about, make tea and tidy. Eventually, we caved in and had some nibbles.
Carolyn’s dog, a black Labrador called Kilo, was wandering agitatedly round the house with a different toy in his mouth each time he went past me. I’m sure he was wondering what all these people were doing in his home, and still trying to fathom what had happened to his mistress.
At about one o’clock, we headed off to the crematorium in a convoy. Our GPS kept disagreeing with my cousin Emma’s route, but we decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. We knew we’d come to the right place when we rounded a corner to see a long, low, engineering brick-built place with a huge chimney behind it. Grim and municipal from the outside, the waiting room resembled a doctor’s without the elderly magazines (and in the case of my doctor’s surgery, frightening paintings done by the head GP). There was a fag burn in one of the seat cushions, a map of Tunbridge Wells surrounded by advertising, bland art and some plastic flowers on coffee tables.
I went to the loo, followed by my mother. We discussed briefly Nick’s outfit, which he’d been fretting about because he thought it wasn’t smart enough, and I said he felt a bit awkward and didn’t know what to expect. It was just as well we didn’t say anything contentious, because when we emerged, Nick told me that my conversation had been amplified through the wall and heard clearly in the waiting room. I wonder how many faux pas had been committed in that very toilet over the years.
The room filled up with a lot of people I didn’t know. Carolyn had specified that nobody should be in black, so I think most people were a bit confused about what to wear.
We then filed into the chapel, and my first thought was “Plywood!”. The stuff was everywhere. There was a big plywood cross on the wall in front, with big blue velvet curtains that presumably could be drawn to hide it if appropriate.
The service was non-religious, and quite sweet. Two family friends presented it, reading something Carolyn had written just before she died, some poems and a brief summary of her life. Robin’s choir sung one of her favourite songs, and we filed out to Otis Redding. Contravening Carolyn’s request that there should be no tears were three people. My aunt Nanette, theatrically dabbing her eyes, Carolyn’s friend who was bravely battling them, and my mum, who had given up any pretence and was in floods. She has colon cancer and though she won’t admit it, I’m sure she was picturing her own funeral. I wasn’t going to stop her crying, but I did put my arm round her which none of her offspring ever, ever do. (NB: My siblings and I are not cold fish, but we’re not huggy people. If you’re the sort of person who likes hugging, try hugging one of us – we’ll shy away like a diffident pony unless we really, really like you. I’m not sure why we’re all like that, but we’re all reasonably well-adjusted, get colds only rarely and none of us have herpes.)
From the crematorium (which we were quite glad to leave), we went to a hotel for the funeral tea of sandwiches and cake. The hotel suggested to Robin that morning that he put out the cards he’d received and some photos of Carolyn. It was a brilliant idea – he laid out some holiday photos and their wedding album, featuring some photos of my dad looking like a Cockney mafioso.
My aunt Nanette and my grandma H were just busting to put their feet in it, as they like to do. Grandma H asked my youngest brother if he had a job (he’s 24, of course he does), and then rounded it off by asking my mother if a) she was still having treatment, b) if there was any hope and c) that she (Grandma) had always been blessed by being in the best of health.
Nanette (for a big fan of NLP, she’s amazingly rubbish at working out what other people are feeling) told us all in intense detail about her campaign to stop her local council from imposing the politically correct hegemony of wheelie bins and recycling boxes. It’s a shame that my siblings and I found her crusade rather amusing. We must be bad people, but at least we were doing what Carolyn wanted, and laughing at her funeral. Carolyn would probably have found Nanette’s rant hilarious.
I hope Nanette doesn’t find this.
For a funeral, it wasn’t too bad an experience. Carolyn really had had enough of being ill. She wasn’t able to breathe on her own towards the end and was getting more and more distressed about what she saw as the mutilation caused by the extensive surgery. Her daughters have both become oncologists, and in a way, she lives on in the numerous tissue and blood samples she donated to medical research in the hope that some way can be found of treating the rare and invasive cancer she had suffered from.
If you’re worried about any lump, bump or innocuous symptom, visit the doctor. It’s probably nothing but if it is something horrible, the earlier it’s treated the better.