A Parting of the Ways – part 1

24 Sep

Parting is such sweet sorrow. Or so Shakespeare says.

Certainly, even with the various warnings we’d had over the last couple of years, I wasn’t quite prepared to part. As I’d gotten to know more about my grandfather’s life, I’d come to know his personality again, and we’d shifted the balance slightly. There were times when I felt he was talking to a friend rather than a grandchild, though that may simply have been because I was finally of an age he could relate openly to. Or perhaps it was because I was paying close attention to everything he said to me, jotting down facts and interesting points for further exploration.

When it came to it, I didn’t say goodbye while he was alive. I couldn’t, it just seemed so absolute that to do so would have been drawing a firm line under his life. When we visited at home, we always assured him we’d be back to see him soon, to which he would remind us in that mid-Antrim brogue of his “The door’s ae open”. In hospital, I simply told him I’d be back shortly.

Once he’d passed I tried talking to him, but it seemed strange. I’ve talked to myself since childhood, so that isn’t particularly new for me, but the absence of his spirit was so pronounced it felt more like talking into a vacuum.

From death, the actual goodbyes become symbolic. Its important to make sure one gets a proper goodbye in person – on the phone, or face to face. My own proper goodbye came a few weeks earlier, in person. It felt like a parting then, and history proved it to be so. But for the wider circle of family and friends we must come together to see them off together.

In talking about these personal experiences at all, I’m aware there are those that will regard it as a somewhat dubious task to undertake. For me, this is a way of processing my grief – the scale of which I’ve not previously encountered. He is the first close family member I have lost in my 33 years. I’m an adult dealing with something many first do in childhood. There is much that I’m choosing to keep private, but others may be going through similar experiences and may find a comfort here. I guess that’s the hope at any rate.

The funeral is for most people a public affair. One doesn’t have a guest list in the way that one does at a wedding. A book of condolence on display at the funeral home records many of those in attendance, but that isn’t surveyed until after the fact. Anybody could walk in and claim knowledge of the deceased, or a close family member, and it wouldn’t be questioned.

But it is also something of an exclusive occasion. Only the handfuls present really fathom what has gone on, and it isn’t that unusual to find attendance dwindles as the deceased gets older. We were fortunate in that a number of individuals made the trip out of respect and to show support to my grandmother, uncles and other family members. Granda seemed to strike a chord with many of those he met, even briefly. Some arrived after many years apart. All were welcome.

We’d talked about the funeral before he died. I’d tried talking about arrangements and so on in years past, but he acted as though as I was writing him off before his time. As I explained, if he had certain wishes it would be sensible to make them known and put them down on paper so we did the right thing. In the end, we had to question him in hospital and were able to ascertain one thing – his intention to be buried in the family plot in Portglenone.

I’ve always wondered what happens when someone dies. It seems a lot can be left to the funeral director. This takes much of the pressure off the family, who are in many cases novices to the whole dying business.

Once I’d had time to accept the events of the morning, I made a call to the 24 hour number for the funeral parlour so details could start being defined. As a family, we discussed and negotiated with the Derry-based funeral director just hours after Granda passed. They were efficient and friendly, and put us at ease. Only minor problems were posed while taking into account the various views of the family – with a series of compromises facilitated. Timings, locations, rough order of service and choice of coffin were all finalised. The only thing that I never heard mention was the cost of it all – a week after we buried him, I have no real idea how much the process has cost his estate. And we were relatively modest.

The first goodbye came in the form of the death notice. A formal announcement to the citizens of NI that Robert/Bob/Hubert had passed and the arrangements for the funeral and burial. He’d have appreciated his notice appearing in the Newsletter on the Monday alongside the notices for Ian Paisley. Both were mid-Antrim men in their 80s. Paisley had died on the Friday, Granda on the Sunday. Paisley celebrated his birthday the day before Granda (although was three years older). [I’ve often wondered if Paisley encountered the evangelistic preachers in my own family before he started his ministry – something I’ll never know for sure.] The death notice is simple, detailing children and their spouses, grand-children, great-grand-children as being principle mourners. You could do it yourself, though the Funeral Director will add this to his tasks.

Most newspapers will publish their death notices online too. We were asked if we wanted an online memorial page, but that wasn’t Granda’s scene at all – I’m not sure he ever went online, though he did Skype on occasion. I suppose when I go, someone might write something vaguely complimentary on my Facebook page. And other people will lie about their connection to me, and yet more will tell you I was an utter shit. But that’s how people remember the deceased. One doesn’t take that into account when planning a funeral.

The Funeral Directors also pick up the body from the hospital and prepare it for viewing. We elected not to have him at home for various reasons. Instead he rested in an ante-room at the funeral parlour where pre-arranged friends and family could visit. I called twice – on the Monday and then on the morning of the funeral. Seeing the body at rest in the coffin one is struck by the absence of self. The energy that existed around him while he was alive – even when dying – is now utterly absent. Unlike some bodies, I thought he looked more like himself than he had down for quite a while, but ultimately he wasn’t there.

Attitudes towards whether one should touch or even kiss the deceased vary between individuals. I can’t say what the best response is – those who don’t sometimes regret not making a final contact, and some that do are haunted by the change. For me, the certainty of absence has been affirmed by the stone-cold touch of the body in repose. I can understand where the detachment can sink in. How can I love this shell, when the man is no longer present? It may look like him, but this is no longer my grandfather. I didn’t want to embrace him, hold him, talk to him, because he no longer existed, just the shell he inhabited. There were no farewells here.

The main goodbye is the funeral itself…

to be continued….

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