Funeral notes

April 15, 2022 4 Comments
John Elwyn, Welsh funeral (Bodelwyddan Castle)

It’s been a bad six months for funerals.  Maybe the Grim Reaper has been busier than usual lately.  More likely, I’m now entering that danger zone of an age when I can expect him to visit my friends and acquaintances more often.  One consolation, if you can call it that, is that experiencing so many funerals in such a short time – and in such a wide variety of types – prompts thoughts about their meaning and functions. 

Since October last year I’ve been to five funerals in all, plus a sixth that was a post-funeral commemoration, in Morriston, Margam, Oystermouth, Cardiff, Llanelli and Aberystwyth (a seventh event, another commemoration, was held online).  Three were held indoors, and one outdoors, at crematoria; one took place in a church; one was a woodland burial.  Some were held in English, others in Welsh or bilingually. Three of the events were religious, three were secular. 

What are funerals about, for people at one remove from family and immediate friends?  For believers they involve necessary thoughts about life after death and the fate of souls. They remind the rest of us of what it really means to be mortal, a fact we manage to push aside during most of our days.  To quote the US poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch, ‘funerals tune our senses to our mortal nature, like proper punctuation, whether we end with exclamation, questions or full stop, they lend meaning to our lives, our human being.’

Ogwyn Davies, Yr angladd (1958) (Oriel Ynys Môn)

But for many what counts is the chance to appreciate a past life and past achievements, and to transmit a feeling of that appreciation, collectively, to the family.  The crucial element of the funeral, then – much more important that the ritual, or the singing or the choice of music, fine though they may be – is the ‘tribute’.  Even better if there’s more than one.  If they’re effective, tributes can do two things: crystallise for us what we already know about the person, and tell us unexpected things, maybe things that happened before we knew them, that enlarge our admiration.  At one of the winter’s funerals the ‘tribute’, or biographical sketch, was given by the deceased.  Not literally, of course: it was read out by one of the living.  But it was written by him and it contained information quite new to me; for example, that he’d lived in New York in the early 1960s, when giants like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Frank O’Hara walked the streets.  My view of him shifted.

By contrast: I once went to an evangelical funeral where, by choice or dogma, there was no tribute, and no reference of any kind to the attributes or achievements of the dead person.  I left the chapel feeling cheated, even angry.

By coincidence, in a centennial re-reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I’ve reached the ‘Hades’ section, where Leopold Bloom, on the morning of 16 June 1904, attends the funeral of Paddy Dignam at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.  Bloom’s funeral experience makes an interesting comparison.

Henry Clarence Whaite, A Welsh funeral (1865) (Nottingham City Museums and Galleries)

Bloom travels in a horse-drawn carriage with a small group of fellow-mourners, Martin Cunningham, Simon Dedalus and Mr Power.  He’s wedged awkwardly between them, much like Paddy Dignam in his own new home.  His conversation is mainly limited to anticipating or deflecting the latent antisemitism of some of his companions, but we listen in to the thoughts that flash through his mind.  While his companions’ remarks are trite or gossipy – Paddy Dignam and his history receive one brief mention – Bloom’s observations are firmly grounded in practical detail.  A woman looks through her window at the cortege, ‘nose whiteflattened against the pane’; he imagines the funeral directors clipping the deceased’s fingernails; a memory returns of the moment of conception of Rudy, his dead son; he scans death notices in the newspaper he carries.  He spots Dedalus’s son Stephen and Blazes Boylan, his wife’s lover, briefly through the window.  Careless mention of suicide causes him to remember silently his father, who took his own life (‘death by misadventure. The letter. For my son Leopold.’)  A drove of cattle, due to be slaughtered, blocks the way, causing Bloom to muse on the possible usefulness of a ‘funeral tram’ to transport both animals and people to their end.  When Martin Cunningham recalls a hearse being overturned, Blooms pictures a repetition (‘Paddy Dignam shot out and rolling over stiff in the dust in a brown habit too large for him. Red face: grey now. Mouth fallen open’).

They reach their destination: ‘Coffin now. Got there before us, dead as he is.’  Bloom, an outsider, observes the Catholic service with detachment and care: ‘makes them feel more important to be prayed over in Latin’; ‘my kneecap is hurting me’; ‘he must be fed up with that job, shaking that thing over all the corpses they trot up’.  At the graveyard his materialist thoughts continue:

Mr Kernan said with solemnity:

I am the resurrection and the life.  That touches a man’s inmost heart.

– It does, Mr Bloom said.

Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes in the daisies?  No touching that.  Seat of the affections.  Broken heart.  A pump after all, pumping of gallons of blood every day.  One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are.

Kyffin Williams, Farmer at a funeral (1995) (Oriel Môn)

He wonders whether burials should not be vertical, to save cemetery space, and worries about the expensive wood used for coffins.  He’s asked by a reporter if he knows the name of one of the mourners, and replies, ‘in the mackintosh?’: later the name of ‘Mr McIntosh’ is printed in the newspaper.

For all his interest in metempsychosis, Leopold Bloom isn’t a religious man.  In ‘Hades’, as well as back in the land of the living, his mind is firmly fixed on the physical world.  But his observation is intense, his curiosity never fails, and good humour, even when images and thoughts of death are unavoidable, is continually bursting in.  As Declan Kiberd says, in his book Ulysses and us, ‘a descent into the underworld was the greatest test of a hero in ancient myth.  Bloom seems to pass it in better shape that any of the others.’ 

Bloom’s reticence and humour, his attention to his surroundings and other people, his unwillingness to indulge in piety or moroseness, are all qualities that today’s funeralgoer might do well to emulate.

Comments (4)

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  1. Gill Lewis says:

    Re Thomas Lynch….I’d like to think it’s a comma for me at the end of my mortal chapter….alas I’m sure it’s a fatal full stop.

  2. Gill Lewis says:

    I’m not often right Andrew….sadly so this time….but what a fantastic evening…gives you hope..

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