Miss C and I spent most of the weekend attending the funeral of a very old man who had been sick a long time. We travelled north to the midlands and, it sometimes, felt, through a time warp, to the country as it was twenty years ago – drab grey houses, clean but shabby B&B’s with strange smells.
The mourners, suitably solemn, but not tearful, also had something of times past about them. The deceased had ten children, and his sons, now long grey themselves, filled the front pews with their large families. The service was shared between 5 or 6 priests, all white-haired, one too old to stand another who head was sunken between his shoulders. The priest who read to us from the New Testament delivered his piece in a sopoforic monotone. He managed to take a story that Buffy would be proud of – “Jesus confronts and defeats demon which in possession of some hapless man” – and strip the drama from it so completely that the tale seemed barely to leave a ripple on the consciousness of the congregation. Despite this, the service was not without moments of beauty, as when three priests joined to sing some phrases in perfect harmony at the climax of the mass. I did wonder if perhaps the very flatness of the preaching was soothing to the family.
A long dark procession wended slowly towards the graveyard, pausing for a moment in front of a door with a black rosette. Among the tombs, a priest led the crowd in prayers from a portable lectern. I noticed that the grave diggers – two – had four long handled shovels standing in the mound of fresh earth beside the grave mouth. Then, sons and grandsons stepped forward, taking these and other from the hands of the professionals, and began to move with quick and personal rhythms. No symbolic handfuls here: as more came forward, tapping the man they came to relieve, I realised they intended to complete the job, a final service to their father. Miss C and I agreed that it was an awful thing: at once touching, and very hard to do.
We left the graveyard not under the traditional drizzle, but beneath a cloudless blue sky, air crisp with a promise of frost, me walking that country lane between Miss C and two of her sisters: easily the most fashionable and glamorous attendees, a very pretty tableaux marchant.