Ashes to ashes

I was thinking about funerals, what with the Queen’s Escort and Helen McCrory, I was thinking how sombre and dignified the piper was as he played out the lament on his bagpipes. I was so shocked and saddened by the death of Ms M. that I felt the helplessness that we all feel in the face of death. There is nothing so absolute as the last sleep. It doesn’t matter how far you run you can’t outrun Lillith. And isn’t it often the mundane, bagging up carrots, scrubbing the sink, that as we do life we remember that death, though inevitable, is utterly unavoidable.
We’d been on a new ramble, a chalky path through a field. Alex, a geography graduate from Oxford was marching her kids, Harry and Libby and their rescue greyhound Rooster, towards us. Alex informed us we were walking the wrong way to the Caff so she led us back through a kissing gate, down the road, up the hill past the old sandstone 130 million year old rocks, past refurbished stables, the local Brewery though a wooden gate and then into ancient, ancient woodland. White anemones and yellow Celandine hugged the path. Through a mini orchard, under a little railway arch, up a steep hill to Rooster’s house where Alex pointed us round her garden, up another field, then onto a wide open meadow with white May blossom home to a herd of deer. Through another field past gnarly old trees with magical trunks out onto the road, into the sunshine, down past the old wild life rescue centre and right into the Caff in the park.
Tables laid out, people chatting, flowers in jugs and freshly baked scones. Wearing a black mask Jack brought us delectable coffee and planted a huge salty scone in front of us, offering cream and jam which we declined.
So today as the sun shone I still felt the melancholy that death leaves. As I reached the May blossom I started counting the funerals I had attended. Eighteen in total, although I’ve probably forgotten some. It occurred to me that over seventy years of living, my losses, though painful, were not excessive.
My father died aged 83. My mother outlived him by six years. His send off was farcical. He led a life of duplicity and chicanery that resulted in a handful of mourners turning up to the Crem in Luton. The right hand side of the chapel was full of the immediate Semitic family, his brothers and sisters and their sallow spouses.
The left hand side of the chapel was empty bar a handful of non-denominational bemoaners, the old git and me.
His secret second wife – I told you he was duplicitous – had chosen the service from the Christian handbook. Nobody on the right hand side had a clue as to what was going on and especially not Hymn No. 27, so we lefties made up for it by singing ‘Amazing Grace’ very loudly. Nobody organised a eulogy, nobody laid flowers, nobody exchanged condolences except three women from the bookmakers wearing green Ladbroke tabards. I was encouraged to get up on the raised stage to say at least something about the dearly departed. I have no memory of my spontaneous speech although I am told it was full of expletives and forgiveness. I have no memory of crying for him, although I did spend eleven hours at his bedside, as his face turned the colour of sour milk, stroking his hand and forgiving him and forgiving him and forgiving him.
My mothers funeral was in Brighton. She died alone in her room, in a little nursing home. Holding her morning cup of coffee she passed away with nobody but her nurse to witness her departure. I was working in Ibiza for ‘The Groucho Club’ when I got the call. Bernie Katz told me to go home so with the help of the other inmates I got back to Blighty to organise her funeral. A mystic once told me that for three days the veil is thinned between them and us, and so it was that for three days I felt the euphoria that my mother had gone to a better place. I was writing a comedy script at the time, including a funeral scene where the mourners covered the coffin in sunflowers. A top shot of luscious yellow offerings. I decided that life/death should follow art. People came from all over the place, down to the chapel in Brighton. My mother was given a rousing send off with a slide show, jokes, songs, Bruch’s violin concerto and Stevie Wonder – single sun-flowers were laid lovingly on top of her casket – the scene had worked – and I cried and cried and cried.
When Bernie Katz died, he who ran the Groucho Club, he was given a surprising send off. Bernie, of the leopard skin or sequinned suits, a man of such generosity that I never, ever paid for anything when I went to the club. His funeral took over Soho. Mourners stood on every pavement round Soho Square clapping and honouring him by wearing leopard skin button holes. A coach and black horses, led the entourage to his final resting place. Back at the club drinks flowed. I cried hard for Bernie.
I also cried hard for my poet in Galway, although I didn’t attend her funeral. I’d visited her in her last weeks alive, we reminisced, and said our farewells, her cool cheek is still stored in my muscle memory bank.
When my mentor Betty Marsden died I travelled to a church near her home in Kew. So many mourners turned up that people climbed up the wooden beams and hung from the wooden rafters, we all gathered on her houseboat drinking vodka at her round walnut table, the boat bobbing in the water, although it could have been the Bloody Mary’s.
Ken Campbell, the genius behind so many performers, opted for a burial in a wood in Essex. His ecological coffin was drawn on a sledge pulled by his dogs, he was laid in the earth to the sound of a lone clarinetist. As in life, his death was madly theatrical.
My dear friend Sybil the Soothsayer said I should write about my own funeral. Well I want a lot of people there. I couldn’t bare to go out to an empty auditorium. I want flowers and poems, I want young people and dogs, I want doughnuts at the chapel door and music from Ashkenazy tear jerkers to French Choral evening song, cheesy Rachmaninoff piano concertos, Bulgarian harmonies to very loud Dub with a ridiculously loud bass. I want people to cry – of course I do – but I also want somebody to tell jokes and for those willing in the congregation to drop their communal drawers and moon at the sky. Because when all is said and done everything will actually have been done and said, cos ain’t that the Cosmic joke? Cos whatever we do, however we do it, it all ends with a final sigh, a tiny splutter and it’s back to the stars we go.
I wish Phillip and Helen and all the others that have recently died, a peaceful journey and I wish you all a long life.

2 thoughts on “Ashes to ashes”

  1. Dearest Jeni Barnett………that’s so strange…….. the wifey, Layla and Leon, went for a walk today, to the sweet shop……. I was working and when I got home I asked how their day was.
    They said that they had given a colourful looking lady directions!
    I guess everyone is looking to be pointed in the right direction……. you find your own way in the end!?
    My wife and kiddies always point me in the right direction, without them I’d be lost……….. hope you got home safely?!
    Big love…… the Borowski’s xxx

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