Long post ahead – but then it’s been a very, very long day. I was awake at 4:30am and up by 7am. Dressed in scruffs first, went out to feed the GPs and to sweep the path by the new gate! Weather grey and raining.
This photo is the one I’d originally thought I would have on display at J’s funeral; it captures her joy at finally reaching Australia.
But she has her sunglasses on, and I like the one we actually used, which is more recent, from 2007. The counterpart picture to the above is this one below, taken on our 17th wedding anniversary on 20 August 2005, when we went for dinner at the Sydney Opera House.
But back to today’s funeral…
We were all ready in good time, and sat around after 9am waiting to depart. Lots of traffic on the road but I’d already planned to take the back roads to Oxford via Bletchingdon and Islip. Steady drizzle.
At the crematorium we occupied the visitor’s centre, out of the rain. I had one occasion to enforce my “no black ties” rule; Don chose one of my two proffered replacements with good grace.
The girls and Jeremy and I met up with Jacqui, the Humanist celebrant, to place J’s photo and framed examples of some of her embroidery pieces.
Then I did my meet & greet role outside the vistor’s centre. I had to size up each approaching visitor to work out a) were they arriving for this funeral b) could I remember their face c) could I remember their name. Pretty much worked out OK, there were some people, such as the Wolvercote Players (friends of Margaret) and J’s former headteacher (Lynn) from Middle Barton whom I hadn’t met before, and then there were some people I hadn’t seen for fifteen years (Karen L) and perhaps twenty-one years (Guy K). Amazing.
Minor hiccup when the funeral directors took J’s coffin into the chapel without Phil or Alex having the chance to be pall-bearers. Not a major problem, but they should have read their script.
Think the confusion arose because they were under strict instructions to have the curtains closed over the coffin before the service began. I went and had a look at the coffin – seemed far too short to contain a body, but not a pleasant thought, so I stopped, pausing only to take a photo of the plaque. The curtains were duly closed by the FD, leaving only J’s photo, the flowers and framed embroidery examples on show. The girls each added another framed example at the start of the service.
And so we began, the mourners entering the chapel to Debussy’s Clair de Lune which was just right, very gentle and calming. Aside: When Juliet underwent her first radiotherapy, she had to have a head mask fitted, rather like a plastic fencer’s mask. This secures one’s head to the table while the radiotherapy is done very precisely… anyway, the fitting and moulding of the mask is a claustrophobic process and the music played then was Clair de Lune. Which is not why we chose it but I only remembered that other usage today.
Jacqui started the service, explaining why it was a Humanist ceremony and that there would be time for people of other faiths to have silent prayer later on. She also explained that Juliet had specifically requested that her coffin not be on show, as both she (and I) hated that moment during a hymn when the coffins suddenly moves off into the curtains.
Jeremy, our great friend from University days gave the first reading “Death Is Nothing At All” by Henry Scott Holland. Jacqui drew attention to the fact that Jeremy had travelled from Australia to be here for the ceremony. Yes really. (And my brother Carl “only” travelled from the USA to be here). The poem – actually most of a piece of prose – is famously contradictory about death and life, and indeed I had removed one or two phrases that were not appropriate. But both J and I liked the overall language and it started a theme common to most of the readings; that of having happy memories while acknowledging the sad.
Jacqui spoke of J’s various roles as “…wife, partner, mum, daughter, sister, cousin, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and aunt”. Next was (cousin) Janet, who previously read at our wedding 23 years ago. Jacqui said “Janet was Juliet’s godmother, her mentor in a social as well as spiritual sense” which was a phrase I suggested to explain how J’s godmother had “failed” to invoke any religious beliefs in her but had certainly inspired her in many other ways. As anticipated, Janet read the slightly difficult piece immaculately: “If I Be The First of Us To Die” which is a poem I’d suggested and Juliet thought particularly appropriate. This is from a novel called “The Smoke Jumper” by Nicholas Evans, which I have not yet read.
Jacqui then spoke in more detail about J, mentioning her organisational abilities regarding holiday planning and even the colour-coded envelopes she left for us. She neatly contrasted this with J’s artistic side – the embroidery pieces on show. And she also mentioned that if J wanted something enough, she made it happen, whether it was holidays, garden planning or bringing up our children. She referenced the occasion when I last played the piano for J, in the chapel at the hospice, and this introduced the next piece of music, “Lullaby of Birdland“, sung by Sarah Vaughan.
And then it was my turn. Throughout the service, it was the readings and the meanings contained within them that affected me the most. But I kept it together for my eulogy, which lasted around 10 minutes. I’m not going to repeat it all here, but it was a steady walk through Juliet’s early life, and then her life with me and the girls. Several weak jokes which helped I think – mainly fisherman’s tales of some of Juliet’s driving antics, which may have grown larger in the telling over the years but were all based on truth. I won’t really get another chance to use them. I pretty much wrote the eulogy in one fell swoop as I think I’ve already mentioned on this blog, just adding in a few memories of her childhood from her family and friends. Others will have to judge how it went but after the service one of my former managers (Haf) said “Glad to see that your IBM public-speaking skills have been of some use”.
Jacqui introduced the next piece of music but! there was a late addition that got missed from the final draft. So I’ll add it here: “Juliet used to enjoy hearing Simon play the piano, and when he played this piece, he would often feel a pair of arms around him and a kiss on the back of his neck“. The piece was “It Had to Be You“, and I chose a cover sung by Don Mclean (of American Pie fame) as he delivers it simply, without the “big-band” Sinatra-like treatment.
Then Lucy came forwards to give her tribute and did extremely well (Stealing my thunder completely). She painted several more sides to Juliet: shared tastes in cool music other than the sentimental stuff played today, cooking, aerobics, abseiling, dancing, watching sci-fi films. Typical mother and daughters’ activities.
Next we stood to have the closest thing to a prayer for Juliet. And then a quiet time for personal reflection, listening to a piece we had at our wedding (then played rather shakily by an organist more used to hymns) : “Love Is The Sweetest Thing” sung not shakily at all by Peter Skellern. All of these pieces I played on the piano at times, and Juliet had thought it perfect for her funeral as well as for our wedding.
Continuing the wedding linkage, Susannah (Sue) came forwards to read the popular poem “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye and suggested by Alex. Jacqui mentioned that Susannah, aged not quite three, had been one of the bridesmaids at our wedding – and today is a primary schoolteacher just like Juliet.
Jacqui then re-iterated that “while your on-going physical contact with Juliet is now ended, your relationship with her is not finished” which again summarised all the readings so far. Friend and neighbour Ian then read the last poem “The Dash [Between The Years]” by Linda Ellis. As soon as he started speaking, in his northern, confident tone (well he is a professional actor y’know) I knew he was a good choice. And it was so apt – here’s the first two verses:
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came her date of birth
And he spoke the following date with tears
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years…..
The last piece of music was “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root, and from the soundtrack to the film Matilda by Roald Dahl. A piece with a strong Australian, ethnic feel to it. People were invited – and did – to come forwards to inspect the photo and embroidery pieces.
After a short time inspecting the family flowers laid out on the flower terrace, I collected the flowers up, and the photo and embroidery pieces – that’s the bags in the photo opposite – and set off for home, in a convoy with Guy, Rob & Eva following. We were home first to my surprise, perhaps the meandering cross-country back route was the best choice.
Then followed a fairly frenetic 15 minutes of setting up drinks and food while people poured into the house. Did I mention it was still b***** raining? The one thing I couldn’t control on the day. In a strange way, both the service and the wake reminded me of our wedding and reception. You know everyone, and everyone wants to talk to you, you are the focus of attention. Just me on this latter occasion, and it was very wearing (I’m not complaining, it’s just inevitable). I also got very little chance to eat but not a problem, managed to keep going on wine, Pimms and lager.
The weather did slacken off (if not improve) to allow some people to go out onto the decking and even onto the lawn. The young kids charged straight onto the wet trampoline regardless.
I think people had pretty much all left by about 4pm or so. Eventually it was just me and the girls, Mum, Carl, Rebecca and Jeremy. I realised I was very hungry, so got a plate of food (not much left!) , took off my shoes, sat down and started crying. Oops, that last bit wasn’t meant to happen. “You’ve been running on adrenaline” someone said. My Mum held my head and hand, first time since, oh about aged six with a scraped knee I should think. Recovered, talked for ages with the others and a little later, woke up; I’d gone to sleep for fifteen minutes without realising.
Later, Jeremy, Rebecca & I went out to collect a Chinese takeaway for everyone. This gave Rebecca the opportunity to tell of her local Chinese takeaway ( and me to shamelessly lift her story) : when Rebecca’s husband John goes there, the Chinese lady serving always spots him and says : “Ah! You got five sons! Very good!” She then calls her husband out of the kitchen. “This man, he have FIVE sons!!”. Husband, without malice or envy: “Me! I only have two daughters!”. They then give extra-large helpings to John (to feed his five strapping sons, see?). Now if this was a sketch in a racially-stereotyped 1970s sitcom, you wouldn’t believe it…
There are more photos of the wake, but they will have to wait until tomorrow, or later today I should say. Also I have an envelope from J to open then.