‘But Mr Joyboy, you’ve given him the Radiant Childhood Smile.’
‘Yes, don’t you like it?’
‘Oh, I like it, of course, but his Waiting One did not ask for it.’
‘Miss Thanatogenos, for you the Loved Ones just naturally smile.’
From ‘The Loved One’, by Evelyn Waugh
This afternoon I went to see my Dad, at a funeral directors’ chapel, in the oak mass-produced coffin Mum and I chose. I wanted a wicker one but was over-ruled on the grounds that it looked like a picnic basket.
Mum was also adamant that she did not want a ‘humorous’ funeral (English translation – Humanist.) She’s always been a modern-day Mrs Malaprop and has been telling friends and relatives how Dad slipped away in his sleep last week, despite the doctors’ attempts to resurrect him. No matter how many times I mutter ‘resuscitate’, she’ll carry on.
The last week’s been all phone calls and form-filling, priests and solicitors and sympathy cards. My favourite moment away from it all came when the lady in the cat sanctuary charity shop advised me, “Tell your mum to replace it as soon as she can.” I explained she had possibly misheard ‘Dad’ as ‘cat’. Much as I’d like the gap left by 59 years of being together to be filled by a tabby, I don’t think it works like that.
I’ve sorted flowers, recce’d hotels to arrange a tea for 80, written Orders of Service and discussed Bible readings (as an atheist.) Dad was a devout Catholic for 85 years, apart from a brief lapse during National Service in Egypt, to which his formidable mother put a stop on his return. I don’t know what he got up to and now I never will.
So there have already been requiem and other masses requested by friends, with a full-on service next week. I haven’t had much experience of dead people. I took a defiant glimpse of my grandad, against my parents’ wishes, when I was a teenager and spent several hours a few years ago beside a friend in his coffin at the London Buddhist Centre.
My own views of undertakers were largely informed by Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death and Evelyn Waugh. I wrote a rubbish thesis on Waugh (rushed so I could spend the summer term watching cricket) and admire his writing beyond telling.
The tear-inducing sight of Dad’s delight in hospital at a priest coming to give him communion – when he no longer really knew who I was – has to be the closest to Lord Marchmain’s Brideshead Revisited death scene that I’ll experience in working class 21st Century Kent.
I’d supposed we would have to deal with someone like Mr Joyboy. I didn’t expect warm, funny, sarky female funeral directors, who have treated us with genuine care and concern.
Mum had dreaded today. Once she saw Dad in his suit, with the lilac shirt and tie that he wore for my wedding three years ago, all that dread went. All she could say was ‘It’s no wonder I fell in love with him.’ Then she hugged the funeral director for cleaning his nails nicely.