Wednesday, 27 March 2013


Andrea's voice sounded hesitant.  "Erm, my sister Melanie's died.  They've already done a post-mortem and found nothing.  She was only 42.  We wondered if you'd take the funeral...?"  This was a blow.  I'd taken Andrea's mum's funeral six years ago.  It seems Melanie, who had lifelong learning difficulties, had simply missed her too much.  I had a couple of questions.  "I expect the rest of the family know you're asking me?"  They did.  "Any idea when it may be?  I'm away in Belfast soon."

It turned out that Andrea and Alan were also due to be in Belfast.  The Blackpool Crematorium and Cemetery could only fit in one burial a day, so there was time to make arrangements.  I like Andrea's family.  Without being irreverent, I'll try to describe the previous after-the-funeral eats.  Everyone squeezed into the modest family home.  Sacha, Andrea's big brother, ordered 36 rounds of fish, chips and peas from the local shop they'd always used.  With mugs of tea, and bread and butter for the traditionalists, we all tucked in, without the flow of good-hearted banter diminishing.

It's not for nothing that Lancashire boasts so many comedians.  For a start, most of the men were wearing with their white shirts tangerine ties, in honour of Blackpool's football team.  "Go easy with that tomato ketchup.  You might get it on my shirt. It's got to go back in the box to get my money back from Marks and Spencers tomorrow!"   I confess that Al Reed remains one of my favourites.

Sacha designed a colourful order of service sheet for Melanie.  We would file into the chapel to Michael Jackson, have Two Little Boys for our first song, and exit to Boyzone.  How great Thou art would represent the family's favour hymn.  Andrea hinted that sequins, rather than bright ties, may be the order of the day, since Melanie 'liked her bling'.   Sacha had also drafted a letter to the Blackpool Gazette, praising the local Social Services and expressing thanks to the three families who had cared for Melanie.  He hoped I'd read it out.

"I think I'll take my guitar," I muttered to Mary as we loaded the car.  "I may just try to lead How great Thou art."  But I wasn't convinced.  The Snake Pass greeted us with bright sunshine, but further west it just got gloomier and colder.  As we got to the gates, I recognised the Cemetery.  "Goodness," Mary commented.  That was all new last time we came, and now it's all full."  It was true.  Row after row of shining headstones marked this corner of the world's love for the traditional way of doing things. 

Uncle Harry parked his car in front of us.  At the same time Sacha and his wife appeared.  They'd been first held up and then diverted coming over A66.  There was a brisk exchange about Auntie getting stuck in the toilet at the tea rooms.  Mary gave me a knowing look.  Ever since meeting my wider family, she's never been able to fathom Northern humour.   Seven or eight random folks wandered by.  We suspected - and were right - that they were Melanie's friends from the MENCAP drop-in.   At points they sobbed on each other's shoulders.  We all respond different ways.

Hearses and limousines came and went, and we weren't quite sure what was happening.  It turned out the previous "slot" was overrunning by a quarter of an hour.   Workmen wandered back and forth with lengths of metal ducting.  Taken with the parked Heating Contractor's van, it suggested all wasn't well with the Crematorium, er, facilities.  We stood around in the perishing wind, cutting through my JA jacket so even my hands were freezing.  "Auntie" joked with Andrea and Alan.  "We've got an hour's slot, so we're not going to be hassled," I offered to Sacha.  "Well there you are then.  Preach for as long as you like."  The chapel cleared.  Michael, from the undertakers, showed me the control buttons for the sound tracks.

We filed in with the coffin.  To the left, mostly the family; to the right the MENCAP and Social Services friends.  Michael Jackson faded.  I got on with things.  Rolf Harris was impossible to sing with.  It wasn't going well.  I silently prayed that somehow there'd be space for the Holy Spirit to move, and for Jesus to signal his triumph over the grave.  Michelle and Andrea shared some heartfelt stuff; their voices dropped with the emotion.  I did my preachy bit, trying to be friendly and to connect.  Then I hit play for How great Thou art.

Now, I'm not afraid to give it full volume when needful.  But the PA speaker was on my left, and my hearing-aid on my right, and the track was running far to fast for a congregation to follow.  Eyes darted.  The chorus was no better.  I poked the red control button and hoofed over to Mary.  "Quick, go and get my guitar". 

"Right; we're going to sing this properly." I announced to the half-standing and half-sitting and half-undecided chapel.  I read Sacha's letter, name-checking all the folks mentioned in it, and giving them warm acknowledgements.  We were getting somewhere.  Brought in from the car, my guitar wasn't in tune; and my fingers were still half-numb.  But we cracked all four verses and a final repeat of the chorus.  They were brilliant. 

Now there was a challenge to make the committal as lingering as respectfulness required, but as brief as the wind permitted.  Sacha had thoughtfully provided daffodils to cast onto the lowered coffin.  We spoke out a prayer from the service sheet, and I said a couple of final prayers from a selection I've compiled for funerals.  Folks stayed around a little.  "Auntie" fixed me with her large grey-blue eyes.  "When my turn comes, will you do my funeral?" 

We thawed out with hotpot at an in-laws home near Stanley Park.  Uncle Harry cracked more jokes, and I missed the call for a cup of tea.  I told Sacha I still owe him a chat about charity fundraising.  Will I be back in another six years?   Next day I sent a text confirming how it had all gone.

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