“What do you call the best place to hold a funeral?” joked my daughter. “I don’t know, what DO you call the best place to hold a funeral?” I replied. Smothering a smile, she continued, “The crem de la crem!”.

We both guffawed. A gallows guffaw since, at that moment, I was driving a rental car, a brilliant red Fiat 500 with wannabe-racing-car interior finish – the ultimate girly-fun roadster – to my aunt’s funeral. I sighed as I tried to contain my hilarity, wipe my tears and negotiate the roundabout next to Dobbie’s Garden World on the outskirts of Ayr. I know my aunt would have laughed too.

We joined the family mourners in the Family Room at the crematorium, where people who rarely see one another (aka family) avoid eye contact and stare, red-eyed, into space trying to compose themselves, or exchange awkward and, in my case inappropriate, pleasantries. Why is it so difficult to stop oneself following up the “Hello”, to a now almost unrecognisable relative with “How nice to see you”? And then, moments later, find the right facial expression to accompany the realisation that this was probably a stupid and insensitive thing to say, given the circumstances. 

Today’s Family Room was a great improvement on the one we were ushered into a couple of years ago for my mother’s ‘do’. That was unbelievably cold and bare, hard metal chairs on a concrete floor, metal-framed windows looking out to the approach road so you could spot the hearse as it drove up at such a slow pace it was as if my mother had changed her mind or, at least, wanted to put this last act off for as long as she possibly could. I was reminded of the waiting rooms at local garages where you’re sent to sit crossing your fingers that your car will get through its MOT. It was just like that minus the tasteless calendars and model tyre on the window ledge with ‘Firestone’ emblazoned at its centre. Mind you, given the location, the latter might not have been completely out of place.

My mother wanted to be cremated before the funeral service itself which was held in her church later in the day. She’d never much liked the ritual of the coffin being carried into the church with everyone gathered there, having to watch or trying to look away. It made it all much easier to organise. Plus, it saved her friends, the majority as old as she was (pushing 90 or already beyond), having to get to and from different venues or faint for the lack of a well-timed cup of tea and an egg and cress finger roll, which they were able to have just steps away in the church hall courtesy of the Womens’ Guild.  

So, for my mother’s last hurrah, the service at the crem was family only plus my closest friend who “would not have missed it for the world” and, in a very modern twist, both my husbands, current and ex. My mother would have been OK with that. Among the many things I have done in my life that, had she known about them, would have made my mother turn in her grave – had she had one – having two husbands did not even reach the shortlist. They were consecutive and well-spaced, at least, and she liked them both in her way so she would have been touched to know the feeling was mutual and they both wanted to wave her off.

So, with only around twenty people all told, we were allocated the small chapel. This was yet another riff on the garage theme, being bare concrete again, wooden pews on the right and a huge space on the left big enough to park an HGV alongside, jack it up, do a quick service and check the brake fluid, while the mourners snivelled, shivered and did their best to belt out ‘Fight the Good Fight’. It was mid-September. A December gig is unthinkable.

It all makes you realise you should really do some forward planning for your own funeral and not be caught out by some sudden event robbing you of the opportunity to have the last word. And you should cater for all seasons.

I missed the funeral of a friend who was in the theatre business – actor, writer and director. I heard it had been a terrific do, despite his untimely death. Lots of wonderful speeches delivered with thespian skill eulogising a lovely, popular, gifted man, some singing, good food. A perfect blend of performance, celebration and authentic emotion; plenty of laughter and many tears. And all staged in the sunshine in his front garden where he is now buried alongside the fence that runs between the garden and the local tennis courts. Sounds like a fantastic way to bow out. Though, personally, I’m doubtful about going dust to dust in the front garden. 

Today’s service was good. The minister, a man with such a ruddy complexion I fear he may have a major skin disease, a man with a tuneful, mellow and rounded voice that fixed him as native to Ayrshire, spoke gently and precisely about my aunt, so much so that I found myself nodding in agreement, feeling relieved and relaxed. He had known her a little and he had been well briefed. You always have to brace yourself for the eulogy; sometimes they’re delivered by someone who didn’t know the person at all and who spouts a stream of quasi-earnest and deeply annoying platitudes that could apply to anyone. The crem was nicer than I remember from my last visit a dozen years ago for my uncle’s farewell. It was carpeted, the wooden pews had cushion pads and it was warm. That last was particularly welcome given it was a typical Scottish day in autumn – wet, windy and peaking at 9 degrees. 

As we left, easing the red Fiat out of the exit gates (have you noticed, always a one-way system at crems?) to head to the bun fight down the road, two fire engines were parked at the gate. We guffawed again. You simply have to see the funny side. I conjectured about tomorrow’s headlines in the Ayr Advertiser: Blaze at Crematorium. Did my aunt, perhaps, go out with a bang, cause mayhem? I wouldn’t put it past her; she was always ready to speak her mind. We laughed – her funeral fittingly spliced between episodes of unplanned comedy. I can hear her laughing too. 

  • Anna Campbell
    Posted at 23:04h, 12 October Reply

    Liz, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your aunt always sounded like such a wonderful character.

  • Chris Kelly
    Posted at 16:26h, 13 October Reply

    Your usual high standard of writing Lizzie. Wonderful stuff XXX

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