The Big Sleep (Part 4)

Going to funerals was not something that grabbed my younger self. Life was for living and these events usually meant a kind of farrago of hypocrisy about resurrection, whatever the religion – Buddhist and humanist ceremonies being the exception. I am thinking about this subject because yesterday I went to another Ghanaian funeral, this time one that was almost patrician in its panoply. It is the first that I have attended where the body was on show and everyone was asked to file past and pay their last respects. The deceased was an indomitable woman in her 91st year. I had met her a couple of times. While I waited my turn to be ushered forward, I observed that more than half those who were paying their last respects, did not look at her, keeping their faces averted. One or two others later told me that they thought she had been prepared well and looked at peace. Someone else told me that this was a step forward because, in Ghanaian terms she was fair skinned which means of mixed blood, going back generations and embalmers are not so used to the cosmetics needed for whiter skin. Indeed, this friend told me that a few years back a white man’s skin was bright yellow as a result of the injudicious use of the wrong pastes. All of this had immediate surreal resonance for me since we have bought the entire box sets of Six Feet Under, that miracle of ensemble acting which takes place at an undertakers.

So, back to my thread, here are some memories of such events, although I can’t include among them a single final get together where the priest, the vicar, the imam, the rabbi or the humanist proclaimer, said anything that added to my store of knowledge about the human condition.

First memory: a new friend, but one who I sensed would become very close, was killed in his twenties. It was the first time I had seen artificial grass covering the mound of soil. An old friend (now himself dead) said that he had visited D H Lawrence’s grave in New Mexico and there were artificial flowers everywhere. Poor D H, the defender of all that nature brings! My second memory concerned a little church where, as the service came to an end, a red admiral butterfly flew into the light of a stained glass window like the fleeing spirit of the deceased. Next, a very dear friend, internationally lauded for her illustrative work in children’s books was being lowered into the ground at a humanist farewell, when a steam train shunted its way past the cemetery, hooting to her. This was in the present epoch of electric and diesel railways, quite recent in fact, but her work is chiefly remembered for its evocation of the 1950s when such trains were the conveyance of the time. The ghostly engine and its quaint wooden carriage had come to carry her off. My final illustration is of a burial of my boy Joseph’s great grandfather. Joe must have been six or so. When we asked him if he wanted to go the the cemetery he said no because he did not want to walk on the planks. Staring at him, I asked him what he meant. It turned out that he had been to an archeological dig with his class and fully expected that a burial would involve walking along planks and looking down into holes where bones lay exposed!

There are other such memories of goodbyes to dead folks I once loved and/or enjoyed but I want to finish with the events of yesterday. All the hymns were from that time in the 17th and 18th centuries when the evocation of the Christian god was of a wrathful Father, carried by missionaries to Africa. One stanza, for example, talked of Heaven being a place where one could lie forever at His feet, able to look upon Him forever – if He so allowed. The Methodist preacher occasionally thrust his face forward and spoke in an impulsive, declamatory resurrectionist screech, as he sought to impose a frisson of mortal fear in us all. Apparently he was very restrained compared to what is the more usual. What was really touching were the personal tributes and the visual intimacy with the dead woman, the emotions of the bereaved and the symbolism of everyone wearing black and white, the mark of a long life that must be celebrated as well as mourned, though, from the priest himself there was too little of the former.

I mentioned ‘living wills’ in an earlier blog in this series on death and it made me think. I suddenly recalled The Big Chill, a rather endearing film about friends coming together for a funeral in which the church resounded to The Rolling Stones great track, Love in Vain and I began to wonder how my own parting could be effected. I should choreograph it, I thought. One last chance to impose my taste and general cultural interests and ideals upon those left behind. A bit of an Irish wake, bawdy and rumbustious with the forest or the sea or the mountain top (yes!) rocking, and everyone having a laugh.

But I could not do it here in Ghana. The wishes of the dead are usually ignored and the imperatives of the various church denominations rule. Here, their god can be a vindictive old beggar, who judges harshly, expects your life to be pretty miserable and full of sin, but who, in some act of last minute teasing forgiveness, allows you supplication at his feet.

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