There was something strangely appropriate about being asked to help lower my grandmother’s coffin into the ground. I wasn’t expecting it; at the few funerals I had been to I’d been well away from the action. But when the pleasant female undertaker suggested that I, along with my sister and two cousins, might like to take a ribbon and do the lowering, I wasn’t alarmed or anxious. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Grandma was a woman of the countryside, a lover of flowers and plants and animals and people. From riding horses in her earliest youth, growing up on her father’s farm in deepest Worcestershire, to the tea-strewn hills of India where she worked throughout the war, she was intimately connected to nature all her life.
At her last home, a small semi-detached house in the town where I was born, she would sit in the tiny garden, which overflowed with plants bought impulsively at garden centres and then nurtured to maturity. Outside the back door, azaleas bloomed, brash and beautiful; honeysuckle and clematis threw themselves over the high fence, dangling heavily over the pavement outside and brushing the cheeks of passers-by. In the raised bed that took up most of the garden she grew tomatoes, miniature daffodils, pansies, tulips and others too many to count. When we went round for tea and cake we would sit in the garden, in the sun.
One of the last times I saw Grandma was a weekend in the autumn when I came back from London to visit my parents, and my mother brought her over to spend Sunday with us, as she often did. After lunch, I asked Grandma if she was comfortable in the sitting room, and she suggested that we go out into the garden. It was late in the year and the air was cool, but the sun was bright, and we sat for a time on the lawn, looking at the blowsy beauty all around us, the bright flowers starting to wilt, but still radiant.
Grandma was a devout Christian, but her attitude to life and death seemed—to me at least—one of calm pragmatism. When anyone she knew died she looked sad, but I never saw her break down. Her youngest daughter, Gilly, killed herself when she was 60 and Grandma almost 100. Perhaps in private she wept and raged, but outwardly she was composed, talking of the lovely parcel Gilly had sent just before she died, with a silk scarf and letter that gave no hint of what she would do before it arrived in England.
And Grandma had lost so much already. She lived through two world wars, with friends and relatives struck down around her. She had been a nurse for five years in India, caring for men horribly wounded and dying. She must have developed a hard shell to deal with all the gore and misery. She married in Calcutta, the war ended, and they came home to England and started a family. With five children and peace in Europe, she must have thought they were safe. But Grandfather was sent to Borneo with the SAS in 1963, and there he died, crashing into the jungle in a helicopter at the age of 43.
So she went back to work, brought up her children well and fairly, and lived independently for fifty years while the world changed all around her. She rose from the ashes of her tragedies in as brilliantly human a way as I can imagine.
Her relationship with God remained constant, despite enduring events that must have severely tested her faith. It seems to me, as a non-believer, that tragedy either cements belief or destroys it, and for her it was clearly the former. She worshipped, quietly and truly, all her life, and went to church the week before she died.
Grandma lived through the rise of the Internet, and would have had time to get to grips with it if she chose—but she didn’t. Her life was lived in the real world, with her plants and books and family and friends. I doubt she ever knew what it was to be bored, after a lifetime of bustling productivity.
By the time she died in 2016, aged 101, most of her friends had preceded her, but, nevertheless, the church was crowded. From our small market town, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the life of a woman who had lived not showily but well; in her quiet way she had touched many lives.
The funeral was perfectly right. There is no other word for it. She was brought into the church in a wicker casket, a wild bouquet laid on top, rolled along on an ancient iron bier. Afterwards we drove with her to the green burial ground, a few glorious acres of meadow that have been made into everything that a cemetery is not. Here there are no concrete paths, gloomy angels or imposing headstones. The graves are well spaced out, and nothing reveals the location of each one except for a simple carved plaque and a cluster of flowers planted in the new-dug earth.
Walking with the bier once again, two on each side, my cousins and I walked towards the grave, the kindly undertakers doing most of the hard work in rolling the wheels over the tussocky grass. Once there, my cousin Richard, who is a vicar, said prayers and sprinkled holy water over the grave, before the little black-suited men gently and skillfully maneuvered the coffin into position.
One by one they handed the thick white ribbons to us, until the four of us were supporting it. It was very light. We had often chuckled about how tiny Grandma was getting, just like her two sisters who went before her. All three had shrunk like tiny gnomes as their grandchildren shot up. She seemed, now, feather-light.
People often say that at funerals you feel a sense of unreality, of disconnect from the person whose funeral it is. The cold formality of a Christian ceremony does not always lend itself to feeling close to the mourned person. But somehow, unexpectedly, the opposite was true here. I had walked close beside her as the coffin was rolled in and out of the church, my hand on the wicker handle, and now here I was helping to lower her into the ground.
In a true and physical way she was with us, and we were with her, escorting her on her last journey after a hundred years of exhausting living. There was no disconnect—the old woman I knew and loved was certainly the person who now lay in the coffin, and while I mourned her departure I knew she had died at the right time, while mind and body were sound and while she was still independent. None of us, I believe, would have changed anything.
So we saw her safely down into the grave, and threw flowers after her, and left the little men to their work. Arm in arm with my mother, I looked at the trees and the flowers and the grass and the blue sky above, and we agreed that we could not imagine a better resting place than this one. Grandma had left no instructions on where and how she wanted to be buried – for her, the immortal life promised by her loving God was more real than physical death and burial—so this was for us, more than for her. Entrusting Grandma’s mortal remains to the kind earth was the truest way of saying goodbye.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Deborah Hollister