Yesterday I went to Doug’s funeral. He died on his 93rd birthday and the full church building was a fitting tribute to a long, beautiful, loving, wise, gracious and inspiring life well-lived. It is, perhaps, the right time to publish a blog post that I wrote a year ago and could never quite bring myself to share. Until now…
At the start of September, for the second time in as many months, I find myself sitting in a church building – in my same grey dress, in front of a coffin – listening to that same tune from the Messiah: I know that my Redeemer liveth. A longstanding favourite of mine, it has, in the last couple of months, acquired the bizarrely powerful capacity to make me feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. Even the opening bars alone make me catch my breath and fill my eyes with tears. A strong physical response to that one piece of music which transports me right back to the moments before he died; the moments when I held his old, life-worn hand while that music played. It takes me back to his funeral and now crash lands me in this one.
For the second time in as many months, I find myself at the intersection of two realities, overcome with that sense of brutal separation but somehow closer than usual to the realm of the unseen. Remembering someone who was here, yet who is now there. Floating in the discomfort of the paradoxes; the co-existence of the already and the not yet, the perishable and the imperishable. When the certainty of continued and completed life clashes with the awful sense that she was too young, that she should’ve been here for longer, and that it’s too soon for her to be a past-tense memory. She may have gained, but frankly it feels like the rest of us lost. A longing for redemption because this seems too painful to have been part of the original plan. We may not grieve as those who have no hope, but we still grieve.
This is my first burial. Everyone else I know who’s died has been cremated. It’s almost a relief to not have to do that again. I welcome a change from the oppressive smallness and functionality of crematorium chapels, the piped music, the mechanised sound of the rollers as the coffin moves behind the curtain which joltingly shuts behind it and hides it from view.
This time we are all gathered outside in the graveyard on the bright kind of day she would have loved, with the autumnal chill in the air mitigated by the warmth of the sun. Lumps of clayey earth thud onto the coffin below, and I wonder if that sound is actually any better than the sounds of the crematorium. It has more of a finality and earthiness though, and that’s somehow more grounding. Each thud seems like a call to wake up from this daze and appreciate the reality of it. It never feels real. You always hope you’re going to wake up and find that this was all a bad dream.
I watch people watching the earth cover the coffin, each one looking crushed by the weight of what is happening. Alone in their experience of grief, in spite of the many around them. Probably they’re all wanting to wake up too. People loiter around and talk. Sharing memories. Laughing and crying in equal measure. Exchanging trivialities because that makes it all seem a bit more normal. Wishing she was here to appreciate the fact that so many of her friends are together in one place, to catch up with the people she hadn’t seen for ages, and to smell the flowers on her grave.
It won’t feel real for some time though, will it? Mum will still miss meeting up with her close friend every week. Will suddenly start crying when she remembers that the absence of her texts represents the real absence of her. Her daughter, my school friend, will still have a mum-shaped hole to fill. And most days, two months on, I cycle past the front door of the house he’s not lived in for years and think of something I want to tell him. I wish I could have just one more conversation, one more smile, one more snippet of wisdom, one more moment in the presence of someone I loved so deeply, and who loved me back.
Walking to the car after the burial, kicking the crispy leaves in the warm late afternoon light, I realise that I am humming that tune again. Yet this time I am not crushed by it but I let its comforting familiarity expand into the gap between loss and hope.
I don’t think that death will ever be palatable or that funerals will ever feel nice or even normal. And I suppose a time to live and a time to die always come together. But, in the midst of it all, I know that my Redeemer liveth.