A year has passed since my mother died, so I’m revisiting the article I wrote some months after.
At the tender age of 58, I organised my first funeral, that of my mother. With my father’s Alzheimer’s and my brother’s early demise from Multiple System Atrophy, I was (and am) the remaining next of kin to sort out such things. It comes with middle age territory, alas. It’s part of being a grown up.
It was only when I had to do this for my mother that I realised how political funerals are, how constrained we are by funereal form and convention. My mother died at 89. She had advanced dementia and diabetes, dying unexpectedly peacefully in her nursing home. Never the easiest of women, I had not assumed such a tranquil end; however, she had endured 13 years of gradual onset of vascular dementia, so whatever she’d done in life, she’d really paid her penance. It is a cruel and awful disease.
When someone dies there are practical issues to resolve, such as what to do with their belongings, and where to hold the service. It reminds me a little of wedding planning, which is one reason mine was kept so quiet all those years ago because both involve pleasing other people rather than necessarily taking the path you would ideally choose. I was pleased this week to see that, following the direct cremation of David Bowie, this is an option which many funeral directors are offering – a quick no-frills cremation, with the focus on the ashes and whatever ceremony people want.
I knew one thing about my mother’s wishes. She wanted to be buried. She also believed in God though did not attend church. Born, bred and forever in Birmingham, it was considered by wider family appropriate to have her funeral there. My preference would have been a quick cremation and an interment of her ashes near me. She was my mother, after all.
It must be said that getting buried in Birmingham unless you are a church attendee is quite difficult. So, we opted for cremation, with me always slightly uneasy that it was not what she wanted. At the funeral director’s, they talk to you in hushed, respectful tones, you discuss coffins, flowers and whether you want to see the body. Struck me that if a person is being cremated, then the coffin is merely a vessel to contain them. No, I did not want to see her body. It was bad enough seeing her in the advanced stages of dementia, to be honest. I was quite keen to have her body shipped to the south-west, but it became clear that family in Birmingham needed to have the funeral up there, where most convenient for the majority. My mother’s 80+-year-old sister eventually swung it. She was very distressed by the event and I knew she really should have a chance to say goodbye to her older sibling.
Then there was a wake. Apparently, you have to have one so that people can pay their respects, though I was tempted not to bother. It all worked out ok in the end; indeed, quite pleasant, as I re-met a long lost cousin and met her son for the first time. The latent function of a funeral is to bring people together, I once taught my young sociology students. It did.
To be fair, all worked out well. The sun shone, everyone turned up, and the celebrant was excellent, measured and humorous. I never realised that my choice of music was so common. I chose Somewhere Over the Rainbow because when younger my mother was told she resembled Judy Garland. I chose Amy MacDonald’s Left That Body Long Ago because she had. I chose Herman’s Hermits There’s a Kind of Hush because it is the last song my big brother and I ever heard her sing. She hadn’t a clue who we were but could remember the lyrics to the song.
Some weeks later, I went to collect my mother’s ashes. The Uber driver wasn’t sure where the crem was, but we got there eventually, and I collected a large plastic urn of ashes, too large to fit in my bag. It reminded me of a giant sauce bottle. Eventually, I was given a green canvas bag used by funeral directors to transport her in. Almost ridiculous. Designer!
My dear old Mum used to like a trip into town. First stop though was the nursing home where I parked her next to my uncomprehending Dad, while I visited him. I then carried her ashes on the train, to Costa, around Birmingham and eventually back here on the Megabus. She had a bit of a holiday, really, all told. Had she been alive and well, she’d have enjoyed getting out and about. I also popped into Birmingham Cathedral with her and said a prayer (she’d had the Lord’s Prayer at her funeral).
As I wandered the streets of Brum, I thought about what to do with her. Should I take her to Appledore which she used to love, and scatter her somewhere? Then it came to me. I’d contact the Natural Burial ground at Woolley, which actually falls within the wider Bude area. My old Mum could end her days in a place I love, Bude. The lovely Sheridon Rosser responded to my email almost immediately. I went to see her at the site, visiting the woods and the coppice, where I was told my Mum’s ashes could be interred by a tree. After thinking of a Wayfarer, I eventually chose a Guelder Rose, beloved of birds, pretty.
Sheridon and I met up again to do the deed. It was a sunny day, albeit cloudy in parts, and I attended alone, as was my preference. This was my goodbye to my mother, placing her in the ground in which she wanted to end her days. OK, she wasn’t in a churchyard with her Mum and Dad, but that wasn’t possible and this is actually lovelier. I thought this as I walked through the large cemetery at the crematorium, that it felt quite impersonal. Where Mum was going was very personal, and anyone can visit the spot if they wish.
So, Sheridon dug and it was at that point I realised how natural death is. It was rather like digging a small hole in the garden. I was then able to kneel on the ground, pour in Mum’s ashes, and smooth them over with my hands, quite literally ‘hands on’. Afterwards, I placed her biodegradable oak plaque in position, while Sheridon gently replaced the grass. In the distance cows were lowing, and closer by, birds were singing. Sheridon wandered off, leaving me to reflect and say goodbye.
To be honest, for me, it was the most important part of the rituals we go through at death. My mother had ended her time in Cornwall. Her ashes will nurture the tree I chose for her, and I will enjoy the tranquillity of the place when I visit. I felt blessed to have this wonderful facility so close by. Ashes don’t scatter because they are rather more like grit than ash, so finding a permanent resting place felt right. In a way, she had two funerals. One for everyone else, and one for her, from me.
In the distance is the sea, nearby is the woodland, and most importantly, it is beautiful and quiet. Mum is hopefully now resting in peace, and I did my best for her, bringing beautiful closure for us both. It was exactly the right decision.
My deep thanks to Sheridon Rosser of Atlantic Rest Natural Burial.