Gail Walker: Whatever form they may take, funerals teach us more about life than they do about death
The people of Ulster have perfected the send-off for their loved ones, says Gail Walker
Sky newsman Colin Brazier has asked mourners attending the funeral of his wife Jo, who died after a five-year battle with breast cancer, to don traditional black.
Writing in The Spectator, Brazier said: "I have emailed friends and former colleagues with details of my wife's funeral, politely asking them to leave their Hawaiian shirts and pink helium balloons at home."
After expressing concerns that "celebrating" someone's life was perhaps emotionally damaging to children, he continued: "There's nothing funky about turning death into a fashion parade and a free-for-all of self-realisation. It is asinine and, if it inhibits the necessary catharsis of the grieving process, it may end up being a mental health time bomb. The old stuff - the black and the solemn - works because it distils the wisdom of ages."
Whether or not you agree with Brazier, he has hit upon a raw point of social etiquette. Many - and I'm one of them - still prefer all the obsequies of the traditional send-off.
There is a peculiar comfort to be had in the Ulster way of death. Like shipbuilding and ropemaking, it is something we have always done well. Regrettably, I've been around enough of such occasions to know how all of the rituals and routines can, in their own way, see you through the bleakest and most emotionally eviscerating occasions imaginable.
It can start with choosing the best suit for the deceased or, for some, simply picking the coffin, a trauma that is quickly subsumed by the keeping up of the constant supply of industrial quantities of tea, sandwiches and traybakes to the callers at the house - on the best occasions, a heady mix of city slicker colleagues from work, wily old farmers, a couple of spivs and perhaps a constable to check on possible traffic arrangements.
And then there is the unerring timetable set by the undertaker. You will have gone from a black dread of the coffin coming home to never wanting it to leave your house. But it will depart - almost to the minute they said it would. Just as some women (and a few men) will lose themselves in weeping throughout the typical three-day wake, some men (and this is always and only men) will lose themselves, first, in the location and opening of a family plot, then in the organisation of the lifts. They'll enjoy getting to know the gravedigger, who will undoubtedly have a dark tale or two to tell. And they will find the undertaker, and all his works, increasingly fascinating.
In some way, this brush with death is bringing them to the point of everything, making them feel more alive than they've done in years. Indeed, after their first such experience some men start regularly scanning the death notices, anxious to seek out funerals of perhaps not even that close an acquaintance, hopeful of getting another lift. In a modern life increasingly devoid of meaning or substance, they crave the black tie formality, the sense of occasion - and being one of the players in it.
Of course, as Brazier well knows, it's not that unusual nowadays to find people opting to do something a bit different. An edict will go out that everyone should wear pink or purple. The coffin may be painted in bright colours. There may be a release of balloons or lanterns and the playing of some pop music. They want the service - if there is one, it may be a non-religious farewell - to reflect the life of the departed one. The clergyman's address may not suffice, even though a good one will recap a life and bring out some of the personality, artfully masking the departed one's family fallings-out. But no, relatives and friends may be asked to reminisce too, with the real risk that what is meant to be a five-minute address turns into a 20-minute performance by someone who thinks they're Stephen Fry but is more Ulster Fry. And, particularly, if it is a child or younger person being mourned, there's an understandable need to want to reflect the vibrancy of the life that has been so cruelly lost. Such occasions are intended as a lively celebration, but in vividly illuminating all that has gone they can also be incredibly poignant.
The old certainties no longer hold for everyone. Some take comfort in the old supports, others stare into an abyss of pain - and nothing else. And that is the crux of Brazier's point, I suppose. He wants his late wife Jo's funeral to help their six children to realise what has been lost, that the scale of it is more vast than the Atlantic.
Because all the funerals I've been to - mostly rather formal affairs - have taught me not about death, but about life. And how to live it.
I don't just mean the gleanings you get from reflecting on the bookended life of a loved one - opportunities taken and squandered, the fate of being born when they were born, the personality quirks and how those played out - but from the finality of it all.
When we were kids, my brother and I would roll our eyes at many of my late father's sayings. But later you realise the old man often had a point. Like when he'd say: "If you can throw your legs out of bed in the morning and get your breakfast, you've a head start on a whole lot of people." Or: "Make the most of every day, you're only round this way once." Older generations were not stupid. They understood the purpose of mourning. It was about a community coming together to assist the bereaved, but also to acknowledge the life that had been lived - mostly, it has to be said, one lived anonymously and unrecognised by the 'big world'. It was also a way of teaching younger generations about death itself, bringing them close to this stern fact of life.
There is a strong sense nowadays that we really don't want to be reminded that the party does come to an end. No one wants to be around sadness, so they don't fancy the rituals of death. Some get quite aggressive. Many never attend a funeral at all, even those of friends, because it "upsets" them too much.
Which, apart from the amazing callousness of the neglect, the sheer emotional laziness, also misses the point entirely. It's precisely because it is upsetting that the deaths of loved ones deserve a little touch of ceremony. Even more so when the death is of someone who has no one to mourn them at all. Happily, even in our own day, the call of respect is greater than the fear of the grave.
A few years back, an advert appeared in an English paper saying that a man originally from the west of Ireland had been found dead, had no identifying papers and so had no known relatives. No one had claimed the body.
That melancholy small ad in the personal column of a regional paper seemed to sum up what so many of us might expect to be our own fate, in due course.
Needless to say, the funeral was attended by hundreds of people, none of whom knew him at all.