Tuesday, 8 June 2021

After Life

We were in Bristol last week for a very sad occasion: the funeral of my partner's older sister, Maggie, who died in May, aged just 69. Younger sister Jill wrote and read out a eulogy, which was published in the Guardian's "Other Lives" obituaries (in an edit which, if the "live" version was the same as that submitted, left out the best bits); if you're curious, it can be read here. Oddly, all three sisters managed to end up with partners / husbands called Mike. To add to the confusion, we discovered at the memorial held later that same day that the father of Maggie's son's wife-to-be is also named Mike. I suppose it does keep things simple, although you can't help but feel some incomprehensible cosmic joke is being played out here [1].

Anyway, as these things do, it prompted a series of thoughts which I trust you won't find too morbid. Think of me as the chariot-slave at your shoulder, whispering memento mori... You may hope to be an exception to this universal mortality clause, but it's non-negotiable. Seriously, I've seen the paperwork in an astounding and privileged preview of angelic bureaucracy. You wouldn't believe the record-keeping effort that goes on up there: keeping track of the beetles alone requires an entire dedicated bureaucratic legion.

Sombrely, though, folks... Covid restrictions in England have meant that funerals can only be attended by 15 people and memorials by 30, which rather restricted the numbers at Maggie's two events, which would clearly otherwise have been very populous occasions indeed. I was put in mind of  the memorial for my old friend John Wilson in June 2010, in which 200 or so people filled Balliol College chapel to capacity. It occurred to me at the time that although there is very little to be said for dying young, at least it does probably maximise the number of people who still know who you were and what you did, who will mourn your absence and, most important, make the effort to turn up for a memorial. It did also occur to me that, even a decade ago, I'd have been lucky to have secured a respectable fraction of that level of attendance, and resolved then to do something about it, by living a better, fuller, more people-oriented life. Which, of course, I haven't.

In that same year I had also mooted the idea of the Lost List, the people who vanished from your life at an unexpectedly early stage, the friends and acquaintances who died, who moved away and lost touch – something that was so often the case for those of us who grew up in pre-social media days – or who may simply have fallen out with you, or become mad, bad and dangerous to know. It now seems to me likely that, of these, the list of those who have died is the one that is inexorably lengthening, and I thought I should give this some consideration, and actually write down some names and dates: if not walking the dead, then at least counting them.

It was salutary to remember some names I was on the verge of forgetting. Work colleagues, in particular, seem to vanish from memory with alarming thoroughness, despite the closeness that can develop over decades of workaday contact. It took an entire morning to recall the surname of a German woman in an adjacent department whose dry humour I'd enjoyed and with whom I must have spoken on most workdays for more than twenty years before she died unexpectedly one summer. On the other hand, there was the annoying bloke I worked alongside for just three years in Bristol, a larger than life character – a folk enthusiast, morris dancer, and "real ale" proselytiser – whose bullying misogyny and practical joking were tolerated by the secretarial staff because, in those days, they had little choice in the matter. His name liveth, because he was such an infuriating ████.

Clearly, I can have no idea what imaginings or vestigial beliefs you may or may not have about the dead. But some idea of an afterlife has dominated human thought for so long that it must be hard for even the most rational person to reconcile the assumption that someone has simply ceased to exist with a more imaginative and emotional investment in their continued existence in some form or another. Ghost stories and zombie movies do not spring out of nowhere, after all. Personally, in my less rational moments, I like to imagine that there is a cohort among the dead who take a particular interest in the progress of my life, no matter whether benevolently, malevolently, or most likely disinterestedly. Huh, what's he up to now? Whether they can intervene or not in one's life is not apparent – I'm sure there are strict rules of segregation between the quick and the dead they have to obey – but it would go some way towards explaining some of those bizarre coincidences, close shaves, odd impulses, sudden insights, and mysterious barricades that punctuate and guide our lives.

But I think the most important lesson has been the simple recognition that life is finite, and that it is a good idea to get one's affairs in good order well in advance. Knowing that her end was rapidly approaching, Maggie was able to be quite specific about her own funerary arrangements, from the music she wanted played [2] right down to the picture she wanted to go on the front of the order of service. I get the impression that, more often than not, what most people leave behind them is simply a mess, an intestate chaos to be sorted out by whichever poor devil gets the job, probably accompanied by much family squabbling and ill-feeling that will last for years.

I was fortunate, I suppose, that my parents were poor and led a simple life, spending their final years in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. Apart from a couple of grand in a single joint bank account which needed to be closed, I was able to take my legacy home in a single carrier bag. Looking around just this one room, I get a sinking feeling that more than a few carrier bags, plus a couple of skips and a visit by a specialist bookseller will be needed when my time comes, unless I get on the case right now. Choosing the music will be the least of the worries, although it's a lot more fun to think about. In fact, I now recall, I had already begun to think about this a decade ago, in the post Funeral Music, and still haven't done anything about it. But perhaps I should work on that "better, fuller, more people-oriented life" first, while there's still time, if only to make sure there's a bit of a crowd to listen to it.

1. Many years ago – probably in the 1980s – I heard a wonderful reminiscence on the radio by a Scottish humourist, a man who, in his National Service, had ended up in the clerical office that assigned new recruits to their units. Realising that physical characteristics like hair colour were recorded, they succeeded in compiling entire units of, say, red-haired men, and – their triumphant moment, knowing that troops would at some point be lined up by height  a carefully graded selection of men, each of a different height ranging from well over 6 feet down to shorter than 5 feet. If anyone can remember who this was, I'd be very grateful (no, it wasn't Ivor Cutler or Arnold Brown, although his wry humour, delivery, and accent were very similar).

2. There was a particularly lovely piece by Malian performer, Fatoumata Diawara, "Kanou".

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