Thursday, 26 March 2009


Ella's funeral was last Friday. All things considered, I think we actually had a good day. In the morning everyone was on tenterhooks. My asthma wouldn’t settle and I had major indigestion. I decided it was the anticipation of grief, like the anticipation of a dentist appointment, where the expectation of pain is often worse than the real event.

Jane and I had spent the entirety of the two previous days shopping and cooking: vegetable salad, 11 pound ham cut into cubes, 3 large bowls of potato salad, 2 of pasta salad, bread rolls and butter, (purchased) pease pudding (it’s a Geordie thing), two spice cakes, cheese and crackers, cookies, water, OJ, tea & coffee.

That morning I made a blackberry and apple crisp which I burnt to a crunch. It didn’t get put out but Bill managed to eat it all anyhow over the next few days. When we went out shopping for food Bill had asked us to get flowers for the house; he and Jane particularly wanted freesias, as those were the ones Ella always bought.

Simon came to us on Thursday and the other two of Bill's kids arrived Friday morning as did Bill’s cousin Alison and her husband from Edinburgh. The weather was glorious, English springtime at its very best. Two limousines picked us up at 12:30 and we were only slightly late to the West Road crematorium. This is the second funeral I’ve attended there and so I wasn’t too surprised that the hearse awaited our limos and that Richard, the funeral director who organized Ella’s service with Bill, wore a top hat and tails and walked in front of the hearse the short distance from the gate to the entrance to the chapel. He then escorted us family to the seats at the front.

Bill’s selection from Mozart played while the coffin was place on a curtained dais at the front. Four ‘Friends’ from the Newcastle Quaker Meeting House were seated in a row facing us. The man – a grey bearded man with long eyebrows and an Abe Lincoln face – stood and did a brief introduction, explaining how the Quaker service was conducted and gave a brief synopsis of Ella’s life, mentioning her children and grandchildren. He announced that everyone was invited back to Bill’s house for food after the service. He then sat down.

After a moment Bill stood and read a poem, The Listeners, which had meaning for him and Jane. Ella had learned it in primary school and all her life, even up until Jane’s last visit in November last year, could recite it in full. Ella liked reciting poetry and Bill tends to be drawn towards poetry books as well and is given to reciting odd bits here and there for his own satisfaction.

After a moment Jane stood and read a prayer that her daughter, Jenny, had sent with her for Grandma’s funeral. She thanked God for many things, including Grandma’s stubborn nature and quirky personality, which was a nice way to put it. After Jane sat down and moment passed, Simon stood and shared his memories of being allowed to make any disgusting sandwich combination he liked to eat (like corned beef and peanut butter), something not allowed at home; also that she let him knock around with wood and nails in the garage and make odd and useless pieces which she sometimes displayed and admired. I guess it is fairly common that people who struggle with parenting often are able to make a much better job of grand parenting.

After a moment, Dorothy stood and gave her testimonial concerning Ella. Dorothy is the Friend who had stayed in touch with Ella even after she left Newcastle and no longer attended church, who ironically lived next door to the Abbeyfield House where Ella ended up. Dorothy has a wonderful deep voice and a beautiful accent which give her a great deal of gravitas which I imagine she’s had all her adult life, not just as she grew older. One just tends to sit up straighter when she speaks.

Dorothy said that Ella demonstrated faithfulness and integrity in her life. She said Ella never stood in a Meeting and ministered, that was not for her; her service was in other ways. Dorothy said it was valuable that when they had events that served food, one could count on Ella to bring her date slice if she said she would. Ella always did what she said she would, showing up on time and doing her part. Several people remarked after the service that they’d forgotten about Ella’s date slice, but that was apparently ‘her dish’ for these occasions, much like spice cake has become mine. Dorothy went on to say that Ella had integrity in that she would never dress up or varnish her words for any one, she was always herself in all situations. I think several people smiled at this characterization as well as Jenny’s.

After another moment, a man seated on the other side of the aisle with several of the staff from Abbeyfield, Brian, stood to talk about his memories about Ella. I gathered he was also a Quaker and had known Ella particularly from her time at Abbeyfield where they sometimes held meetings, but I'm not certain. Brian's sharing was fairly worrying as he didn’t seem to have a plan for what we was going to say, he went on a fair length and several times when he’d seemed to me to have reached a stopping point he didn’t seem to know it, but took another breath and continued. We all hung on every word and wished the Friends had a form of the crook supposedly used in vaudevillian days. I’m not sure what he meant to say but he finally stopped and sat down.

We only had a half hour slot reserved, not thinking there would be many at the funeral and that time was now about up. The Friends at the front remained seated but shook hands with one another in turn. The curtains in front of the coffin slowly closed, something I found incredibly symbolic. The music came on again and we filed out of the chapel. Bill and Jane greeted the others as they emerged. We were given the choice of moving down to a garden area or of getting into the limos then, as the next funeral service was awaiting use of the chapel. We went into the limos and found ourselves amazed that it was all over and done so quickly.

When we arrived home, I got everyone to stand for a group picture, remembering the group pictures Rita took after my Mom’s and Grandmother’s funerals which were the very rare occasions when the wider family gathered. Then we went in and I started putting food on the table. I was grateful for the pre-planning we’d done and things seemed to go quite smoothly.

The one thing Jane and I both forgot was about Brits and their tea. We’d planned to make the coffee and tea after people had eaten the food, so serve with dessert. What I should have remembered is that a ‘nice cuppa tea’ is the antidote to every ail, or any problem in the world to a Brit. So when Nora, Bill and Jane’s 95 year old aunt, arrived the first thing she wanted was a cup of tea and so did her son-in-law, Bobby. I guess that’s what happens when couple of foreigners do the catering.

I didn’t have much chance to chat but, truth be told, I was happier hiding in the kitchen doing dishes. I was pretty tired and making chit chat with strangers was more than I was up to. At some point, however, I was looking at a 1920 picture of the three daughters: Ella, Mary (never married) and Dorothy (mother of Alison and Diana). Then I discovered that Alison was into genealogy big style and the conversation really got going with exchange of email addresses and promises of scanned pictures. I’ve a feeling we’ll be going up to Edinburgh not too long from now to visit not just Sarah but Alison and Bob.

They left soon after that to beat the traffic back up to Scotland. We learned ages later that in fact Chris had caught Alison and Bob just outside the front door and held them like flies in a spider’s web – one of his major talents for unsuspecting souls still trying to be polite. However, they did eventually manage to get away and they won after all: Chris couldn’t actually say they had invited him and Jane to come up and stay at their place.

I did end up having a plate of food and visiting with Bobby and Bill’s children gathered in the dining room. Auntie Nora was holding court in the living room. Eventually everyone left but Simon, Rhiannon and Sarah who were staying with us; Helen and Martin got a room at a B&B in Tynemouth for Friday and Saturday night.

Several times we had occasion to remark and wonder that all the strange rituals around a death did turn out to be blessings, strangely enough. Jane and Bill found the viewing of Ella at rest to be comforting, preparing of food and house for guests kept our minds and hands too busy to fret, the gathering of friends and family was pleasant and cheering in spite of the occasion.

As always, everyone promised to do better at staying in touch. We’ll see how that goes…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So sorry for you and Bill on the passing of his mother. She lived a long and sounds like interesting life. Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this time.