Do you ever think about the other life you might have lived? The other job you might have had? I love being a writer but I do sometimes wonder if I would be happier as a funeral director. I know most people squirm at the thought of seeing and, worse, handling a dead body, but I think it’s one of the most underrated jobs going. What an honour to lay out the body of a loved one, to liaise with a family during the worst time of their lives, to make sure the passing of a special person is marked respectfully, appropriately and smoothly.
Maybe I can attribute my interest in the dead to an episode when I was two years old – one which I don’t remember but that my mother has often told me about. We had recently moved to Teignmouth and our next door neighbour was an elderly lady called Miss Bowles. One morning her cleaner rushed to our house, knocking frantically, ranting ‘I think Miss Bowles is dead! Can you help?’. Mum said ‘I can’t leave my toddler here. She’ll have to come with us’. So we went into Miss Bowles’ house and she was indeed dead, lying on the stairs as if she were a rock climber. Mum called the emergency services and for the rest of the day I kept repeating: ‘Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead. Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead’.
Two years later, we moved to Torquay when my parents bought a newsagents. It was great fun living above the shop but we only had a tiny courtyard outside. So my brothers and I would go to the ‘Boneyard’ of the local church down the road to loiter and play. I loved it there, running in and out of the gravestones, picking flowers in spring and collecting ‘helicopters’ in autumn. The shop and the Boneyard were very important to me and thirty-odd years later they became the inspiration and setting for my novel ‘The Generation Game’.
So what else has drawn me to the dead? When I was ten, my father died suddenly and tragically. It was 1978 and children didn’t go to funerals. Especially awkward ones where the deceased had taken their own life. I’ve often thought about it and wished I had gone. The graveyard where Dad’s ashes are buried is in Selworthy, a beautiful, remote place in Somerset. I find great comfort going there, surrounded by Stenners, going back centuries, family members I knew, and those I have just heard about, and some I can only guess at. When I had an ‘episode’ two years ago, I left home and made my way to Selworthy and lay down on my father’s grave. It was January and night time and very cold but it was the place I wanted to be, a place of comfort and safety – though I have no recollection of how I got there. Fortunately I was hunted down by my husband and a good friend who thought to bring a flask of tea and some custard doughnuts. Without them, I would perhaps have died myself of hyperthermia.
Over the years, cemeteries have been places of interest and I think that’s partly due to losing a parent as a child, and partly because I am a writer and avid reader (literature is of course scattered with death). I’ve visited Pere Lachaise in Paris to see my beloved Oscar Wilde. Much more interesting than the Louvre in my opinion. And when we lived in East Dulwich we used to go to Nunhead cemetery where once a year they had an ‘open day’. There was no exhuming but instead there were plant sales, woodturning exhibitions, and political organisations on recruitment drives. (Only in England.)
I’ve been to many country churchyards and many city ones – one of the most recent was the allegedly haunted Greyfriars cemetery in Edinburgh on a bleak, cold day. I’ve stood at the foot of many war memorials, silently contemplating the loss of so many lives and humbled at the thought that there are just a handful of ‘thankful villages’ in England whose men all returned. And I’ve visited tombs of the unknown soldier in honour of those whose bodies were never brought home.
There are many places still to visit: Highgate cemetery in North London. Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire. Keats’ final resting place in Rome (see epigraph above). Coventry cathedral. New Orleans. The pyramids. Jesus’ tomb. The battlefields of France and Belgium. Auswitz. Places where millions of people suffered and died and must never be forgotten. Not tourist destinations or places of morbid curiosity, but places of pilgrimage where we can contemplate those that went before and try to learn the lessons that their deaths can teach us about how to live our lives now.
I do think I would have made a good funeral director. I am not afraid of dead bodies or indeed of dying. But I do fear losing my loved ones as I know how hard it is to go on living when you miss a person so much. I think I would be of comfort to the bereaved.
I also think I’d have made a good Victorian when it comes to mourning.
If you feel so inclined, here is Emma Freud’s guide on How to do a Funeral. Its very good and I have cut it out to keep…
And this post is in no way intended to be flippant. It is written with honesty.