The small chapel at Warriston crematorium in Edinburgh is furnished neutrally with rows of conference-style seats, large amounts of pale polished wood, an electric organ in the corner at the back and a plain wooden cross that hangs from a hook on the wall, presumably so that it can be taken down if necessary. The coffin sits at the front on a catafalque.
One day last month it was my mother’s bamboo coffin at the front. She had had dementia for several years, and then she suddenly fell ill with something else and died. There is a lot to say, but it’s the “DIY” nature of her funeral I want to focus on, because it occurred to me that it reflects how life is today for many Catholics. We do not invariably live in a monolithic religious culture where everyone’s attitudes are pretty much the same – and that is more of a challenge, but it can also be a good thing because it forces us to think about what we really believe.
My mother’s immediate family consists of just my father, my sister and me. We knew that we were going to have a small gathering of about a dozen – with a party for all her friends at a later date – and felt that she would not have wanted a priest.
My mother was nominally a member of the Church of England, but she had inherited from her father a deep suspicion of priests and ministers. This didn’t inconvenience my father, her husband, because he didn’t go to church either. Having been brought up Scottish Presbyterian, he didn’t “get on” with Anglican services where we lived in England. When I became a Catholic in my early twenties my mother’s attitude was of sceptical amusement, really. She was an agnostic rather than an atheist.
None of us thought a funeral led by a minister who had never met my mother would work, so we decided to say the words ourselves. My father addressed the grandchildren, five of them, aged 11 and below. In a talk of just the right length, he explained what Granny was like before dementia set in – where they travelled to together, for example, and how when she was growing up in Wolverhampton during the post-war years of rationing her parents kept three pigs in the garden. One day the pigs went away and after that they had hams hanging in the kitchen.
My sister gave some very funny and well-observed recollections of my mother’s ways, how she loved parties and gossiping over fags and a glass of wine.
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