A Day Out

Written by Jean Roberts 

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So, there I was, at the funeral, well when I say funeral, I actually mean cremation. Now, I’d never been to a cremation before, therefore I’d never been to a crematorium and, to be honest, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I’d been to quite a few funerals over recent years; I’d got to that stage in life when, unfortunately, the parents of friends were leaving this mortal coil, and at least once a year I was attending a funeral.  I think there’s a "seven ages of man" type of thing going on throughout our lives: we start off going to the weddings of friends, then the Christenings of their babies, then there’s the funerals of friends parents  (where I am now) and our own parents, and then the funerals of friends. (There are exceptions to this of course, like if someone dies young for example). Anyway, I digress. As I said, I’d never been to a cremation before, and although I knew roughly where the crematorium was, I didn’t want to get lost and arrive late.  I had this nightmare vision of crashing through huge oak doors that squeaked just as a heartfelt eulogy was being delivered. So I decided to set off a little earlier than I normally would to travel the twenty-five miles; just in-case there was a problem with traffic.

I arrived at the crematorium a good half an hour before the service was due to begin. The car park was empty, and apart from two young women, dressed all in black, who were standing around the side of the building having a smoke, and I assumed they worked there, doing what I couldn’t imagine. Well, the place looked deserted, and it crossed my mind that I was in the wrong place (irrational panic mode about to kick in). Just then, one of the large doors at the front of the grey brick building opened, a young man wearing a dark suit stepped outside, looked around, and then went back inside the building. So knowing there was someone there, I went inside.  The room wasn’t how I’d imagined it somehow, although I’m not really sure what I did expect.

It was a long rectangle shape, with a low ceiling, two of the walls covered in a dark brown wood veneer, and a large window along another wall, which overlooked a covered car port type of thing at the front of the building. Along three walls there was a bank of blue chairs, and there was one small side-table in between a couple of the chairs. It was all bit stark really, but this was only a waiting room and not the room where the service was to take place. There was no music, nothing on the walls, no flowers. Nothing. Oh except for some leaflets about who to contact when someone dies, which seemed a bit redundant really, considering where we were. Now, in a church or chapel funeral there is no "waiting room"; the congregation arrive usually well before the deceased and their family, and sit in the pews in the church (or chapel) where the service is to take place. So I sat there for what seemed like an age. Eventually (probably only about five minutes really), some people arrived who I recognized and they politely said ‘Hello’ as they walked past.  Of course you could see from their expressions that they had no idea who I was, but I said ‘Hello’ back to them anyway. Then more people arrived, and they all seemed to know each other and did the old air kiss to the cheek (the ladies) or a sturdy handshake (the men). Every now and then I’d catch someone looking sideways at me and gently nudging their neighbour, and whispering out of the corner of their mouths:

 ‘Who’s that then?’

‘I don’t know.’ was probably the reply.

Well, the funeral party (is that the right word? Doesn’t sound right somehow, having the word "party" in the same sentence as "funeral") finally arrived, and everybody stood up to greet them. (Greet?  Again, not sure about that being the right word), but anyway, once everyone had said their ‘hellos’ the family were ushered into the main room where the service was to be held. As I stood waiting for everyone else to filter through, I realised how sombre and slightly claustrophobic the reception room was, although it was not a small space. I don’t think the dark veneer walls helped, and the fact that there were no flowers nor anything on the walls just made the place feel… well, not very comforting I suppose. I appreciate it must be difficult to strike the right balance but I think it would have made Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen weep. And, up until now I’d had a preference for cremation over burial, but now, looking at this room, the thought of my nearest and dearest waiting in here, depressed me, it really did. Yes, I know I won’t technically be present, but it’s just the thought of it.

But, I deviate slightly from the events of the day. Now, where was I? Oh, yes…waiting to go into the room for the service. Well, as I said, I waited until I was the last person to go in, and shuffled in behind a lady wearing a very nice black wool jacket, well cut, and you could see it was not off the sale rack in BHS; but the colour of the knee length skirt she wore with it was an assault on the eyes. In all my years, I do not think I have ever seen a pink so pink. Neon. I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be seen from the moon. Once I’d got over the shock, and my eyes could focus again, I followed her along into the row of chairs at the rear of the room, which were all that was left. Providence really, as the individual chairs were those sort of square, padded affairs they use in conferences, and I’m sure a lot more comfy than the wooden pews everyone else was sat on.

Music heralded our entrance, well, I use the term loosely; a CD of Pan-Pipe music, playing, if I remember correctly, Love is all Around, which bore no relation to the Wet, Wet, Wet version, nor come to the think about it, to the original version by The Troggs. It certainly wouldn’t be my choice of music to be sent off with, but each to their own, as they say.

As the congregation shuffled to their seat and settled down, there was the usual mass hushed mumblings of conversation, the music suddenly stopped (let us be thankful for small mercies), and a female vicar in her early forties was stood facing us, behind a lectern at the front the room. All at once there was an audible hush, and we were instructed to stand for the first hymn, in this case, Abide with Me. Organ music began to fill the room as we all started to rise to our feet. I noticed that just to my right, there was an alcove which housed the organ, and sitting at the organ was an elderly, round, jolly looking gentleman, looking very smart in a dark grey suit, and a full head of thick white hair. He really did look as though he was enjoying himself, his fingers ran along the keyboard like a demented spider, and I half expected him to start playing Oh, I do like to be Beside the Seaside, (it’s a song I always associate with organ music. Sorry.) Instead there were more mumblings as people began to sit down again. Someone came scuttling over to the organist and whispered something to him. It took him a few seconds to stop playing, at that point his jolly little face took on the expression of a child who had just been told that there is no tooth fairy.  At the same time I could see that in the front row (where the family were sitting) the vicar and a young man in a suit (who it turns out, was a member of staff at the crematorium) my friend and a couple of other members of the family of the dearly departed, were talking to another woman who was sitting in the front row. I couldn’t really see her very well, but she was definitely causing a bit of a problem, and there were a lot of agitated gestures going on. Well, after a few minutes, the agitated party sat down, with a lot of shaking of heads, the vicar went back behind her lectern, and addressed the congregation:

‘Apologies for the slight delay, ladies and gentlemen. We will now commence with the service. Please be standing for Abide with Me’.

She gave a little nod in the direction of jolly little man at the organ and we stood up. The organ music began, and Abide with Me was sung with varying degrees of gusto, and miming. As we were in the process of sitting down, I could see over the heads of those in front of me, and I could see the woman who was causing all the fuss a little earlier. Well, when I say I could see her, I could see the back of her head, sort of. I saw her black coated shoulders, and a black fedora type hat atop dark shoulder length hair. I could just about make out that she was wearing glasses. I didn’t recognise her though, and I knew most of the family, if only by sight.

Well, the rest of the service was straightforward enough. There were a couple of prayers, another hymn, a rousing rendition of Calon Lan this time. I love that hymn, as do a lot people I think. I’m sure it’s been played at every funeral I’ve been to. Then there were some eulogies from family and close friends. The vicar gave a short, touching eulogy, and there was some gentle organ music, and everyone stood up. Slowly, some members of the family who were sitting on the front pews started to move towards a door in the far bottom corner of the room.

As we all stood there waiting our turn to move forward to the exit, I noticed that the woman in black, moving slowly towards the coffin, which was on a raised platform affair just to the right of the lectern. Like I said, I’ve never been to a crematorium before, and all I did know of them was from the telly, and where the coffin disappears through a curtain in the wall. Well, there was no curtain, and no hole in the wall. As I wondered where the coffin would go, the woman in black walked up to the coffin, and quite unexpectedly, threw herself across it, crying ‘Daddy, I love you!’ and squashing the beautiful flowers on the lid in the process. Well, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone turned to look at her. Somebody near the front fainted. And to top it all off, the coffin, and the woman in black, began to disappear into the tomb like platform. Suddenly, all that was visible of the woman were her legs, and shoes, flaying madly and pointing skywards. Wails of despair could be heard, but I’m not sure if they were from her or some other poor person for whom it all become too much, and as some people hurried out of the room, three suited men ran over to the coffin in an attempt to retrieve the woman from the chasm. But as they were leaning into the blackness, the coffin and its passengers began to rise to the surface again. At this point, the men managed to disentangle the woman from the flowers, and hauled her off through some other doorway, and she was not seen, or heard again. Not by us anyway. The whole thing was like a scene out of a Carry On film.

The rest of the proceedings went, I assume, as planned. The coffin descended into the bowels of the building, the congregation filed out of the room in a civilised manner, and shook hands and said the polite sounds of ‘lovely service’ or ‘she’ll be missed’. Nobody, as far as I know, mentioned the woman in black, nor the fiasco that had just taken place. I was the last person to leave the room and, do you know, the jolly little man was still playing the organ. He hadn’t stopped, while the mayhem was taking place, he continued to play something soft and soothing. Ironic really. Of course, he couldn’t see the coffin from his little alcove, and I suppose, amongst all the chaos, no one thought to ask him to stop playing.

I offered my condolences along the line of family, and the usual ‘Haven’t seen you in years, you’re looking well’ and by the time I reached my friend, most of the congregation had dispersed, and were on their way to their cars, and heading for a local hotel where a tea of light refreshments was being served. We hugged, and I simply asked if she was ‘okay’. We’ve known each other so long that’s all that was needed. And as we walked back towards my car, she apologised for the spectacle, and said that she, nor any of the family knew this woman. Unfortunately, she’d managed to sneak in to the service through the door by which everyone had left, and had just sat down. In the haze of grief surrounding the family, no one had really noticed her until everyone was seated, and when asked who she was, and that she would have to leave, she began to cry. Under the circumstances, and to save more upset, they decided to leave her be, not expecting for a moment that she would do what she did.

I didn’t go along for the light refreshments. As I said, I didn’t really know anyone there, and the only topic of conversation I had in common with anyone was the deceased, and the events of the fiasco of the woman in black, and that subject was probably better left alone.

I suppose you’re wondering if we ever found out who she was, the woman in black. Well, we did, sort of. My friend and I met up for lunch a couple of weeks after the funeral, and she’d had a ‘phone call from the undertaker, apologising for what had happened. Apparently, our woman in blacks name is Grace Edwards, and she resides in a nursing home about a mile from the crematorium. Well, poor Grace hasn’t got all her marbles any more, and gets a bit confused (to say the least). Although, she has enough of her marbles left to escape from the home on a regular basis, and she usually turns up at a funeral, but is usually very well behaved. Apparently. Breaks the monotony of day time telly and basket weaving, I expect. She also enjoys meeting new people, and really enjoys the ‘light refreshments’ that follow. She gets a ride in a motor car, and someone usually offers to give her a lift home. Grace was definitely having an off day that day, as it was my friends mother who had passed away. Apparently, Grace is under stricter supervision these days. 

I learned a couple of things that day though, one being that not all crematoriums have a hole in the wall and a little curtain, and the other thing being that I’m not sure about how I want to go now. My final ‘hoorah’. I certainly don’t want to be buried (they might get it wrong. The Victorians had the right idea with that bell!) and, I certainly wasn’t too keen on that waiting room at the crem. So I think when it comes to my internment, I think I’ll go out Viking style…on a boat in a blaze of glory, to a chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, with everyone whistling... badly.