Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A Welsh funeral...

This most traditional of English summer carries on. Sunny and hot, humid and windy, stormy and wet all at the same time and all very acceptable in the main, as good as any summer I can remember. Of course for the most part I have spent much of my time in Wales, that strange half-life way of living which isn’t quite here nor completely there. Not holiday or work, not home or hotel. We fit into the village landscape; not quite holiday people, but never quite local either.

Time is short. Waste it wisely.

It was Will’s funeral yesterday. For eighty-four years he lived in the cottage next to ours. Eighty-four years of being a local, eighty-four years to build up likes and dislikes, have the occasional feud, even make the odd enemy or two I guess. Eighty-four years - much more than our fifteen as his neighbour.

The funeral was a private one - by invitation only. The body resting in the house and those invited gathering together in their blacks in the living room where the local Baptist minister conducted a private service. Of course there was no singing, no hymns, no recorded music, no favourite songs, not even a radio playing; just the voice of the preacher droning on in a tiny room for what seemed like hours, his guttural Welsh intonation buzzing like a wasp caught in a window.

I was surprised who wasn’t there, and surprised by some who were. I wondered why we had been invited given that so many neighbours, neighbours Will must have known all his life, had not been. A responsibility, yet at the same time a strange honour and not to be undervalued.

It’s hard to follow anything in a language you don’t understand, even harder if it sounds like a series of grunts and throat-clearing and you are standing in a room full of strangers. Even so, after a while I began to lose the stiffness in my back, as it transferred to my feet, and appreciate the melodic quality and cadence of the preacher’s voice. I stood listening to the sound of the words, rather than trying to guess their meaning. I’m sure that at one point the preacher said: “the dada has bought a new Mercedes,” and that he called someone a “knobhead” (perhaps God) three or four times. Of course by then I was mostly in a trance, his words lulling me into a tranquil quiet that was almost sleep.

Occasionally he’d drop into English. I guess for the benefit of my wife and me as, at these points, he’d always say the word ‘neighbours’ after ‘family and friends’. We were the only English of the score or so people in the room and I felt relief and gratitude to hear even a few words I could understand; even so it made me feel a little uncomfortable to be singled out in this way.

“We may not understand, but my advice would be ‘don’t panic’.” He said.

How right he was, although at the time I couldn’t help thinking of Dad’s Army and Private Jones – Will’s family name coincidentally. Yes. Don’t panic - the same words that I’d said to myself as I climbed the steep stairs to Will’s bedroom less than a week before.
I was pleased that my cheap black funeral suit still just about fitted. Relieved that I’d found my good blackish tie clean and not crumpled and that I had a white shirt hanging ready in the wardrobe. I’d have fitted in completely if it wasn’t for my Englishness, the small gloomy room so full of black that it became a coal mine of clothes once hung in other wardrobes awaiting outings like this.

Will’s body was in the smaller room to the side, enclosed in an even smaller coffin. I have no idea what that room was used for, but today it was a place for the dead to wait “before going on to the next life,” the preacher said in English for the benefit of neighbours.

We followed the hearse up to the windy cemetery on the hill, the graves arranged regimentally in lines. A five minute walk, but we drove; part of the procession on Will’s last journey. The older gravestones were slate, the more recent a shiny polished granite. Reading the dates I realised that this place usually sees less than two or three burials a year. Perhaps that is why it had only taken six days, including the autopsy and coroner’s inquest, from Will’s death to his interment.

The rain kept off, the wind whipping away the preacher’s words and scattering them across the fields. Somewhere Mair, Will’s wife, was buried in this place too. I couldn’t remember exactly where and examined the lines of graves trying to recall where I had stood those four years ago. I promised myself that I must come back to look, but I doubted that I would. Even with its solitude, the view of the sea, the sound of the wind, it wasn’t the place to picnic.

They lowered Will into the ground and Carol, his daughter, looked sad. For some reason people came forward to peer down into the grave. I wasn’t sure if I should or not, but in the end I didn’t. Then it was over, the preacher walking away and almost falling over a grave. He managed to keep his balance. But I had to stop myself from nearly saying: ‘Maybe you should take more water with it next time,’ despite his walking stick.

I can find the funny in anything. But I always find the sad too.

Afterwards there were sandwiches, cakes, and pots of hot steaming liquids for a funeral tea at a local hotel. Hefin, Carol’s husband, had managed to arrange it last minute despite a wedding reception that evening. Life truly does go on, and the cakes, scones, and sandwiches were excellent as if to underline this fact. I watched as Will’s people enjoyed their food and the chance to smile again, then they drifted away in twos and threes taking their own particular memories of Will with them

As we were waiting for our turn to thank Carol, an old man asked me ‘who (the hell) I was’. The ‘hell’ was implied, but his manner seemed overly curt. “Just a neighbour,” I replied, suddenly realising with his question that I was the one who had pronounced Will dead. It was me who had said the ‘dead’ word for the first time ever in reference to Will. I didn’t share that thought with my inquisitor though, half expecting him to ask me just who I thought I was to be making judgements like that and me not even a Welshman - and to be honest I would have agreed with him.

We said our goodbyes to Carol and as I turned to her she looked me in the eyes and thanked me for all my help on that day. I just smiled. There was really nothing I could say.

I didn’t have the words.

And that was that.


  1. Mark McNicholas on FB
    Poignant. I think we can all relate to this reaction.

    1. Andrew Height
      It was an odd day Mark. Somehow I felt I should be there even though I didn't know if I belonged.

    2. Mark McNicholas on FB
      Know what you mean.

  2. Lindsey Messenger on FB