Our Family Funeral

My partner and I took our hired car and drove to the mortuary. My niece, who had only been able to see Henry when he was unconscious in hospital, arrived and we all went in together. The mortuary staff are not obliged to help lift the body into the coffin, but ours was most helpful. We lay Henry’s body onto his favourite dressing gown, draped in the coffin, whilst my niece, Lowella, packed the spaces with alpaca fleece, for comfort and stability.
Handling the filled coffin into the car gave us an idea of what its like to move this weight, and I was glad to know there would be four pall-bearers for all subsequent handling.

We drove slowly to the church. By now, my sister, Demelza, her partner, Louis and their son, Reuben, would be at the burial ground. Demelza had been gathering photos and obtaining significant artefacts to transform the cabin into a shrine to Henry.

Arriving early at the church gave us time to wait in the cold March morning for people to arrive. Joyce pulled up in Neil’s car, together with my sister Jane and her family in their car. Together with John, Jonathan, and Neil as pall-bearers, we were ready to go.

Just before midday, with the coffin in the car, next to the church entrance, we negotiated the tricky, un-rehearsed task of pulling the coffin out of the car and onto our shoulders. Luckily, the Sunset Coffin is designed with hand grips on the base and, together with the rope handles, we were securely in possession of Henry. The next detail is: he was emerging from the car feet first. However, Joyce wanted him in the church head first, so the flowers would lie just right on the coffin. So, we executed a one hundred and eighty degree turn, then we were off into the church.

The vicar had two trestles positioned to take the coffin. However, once we were inside the church, he stopped us to sprinkle holy water over us and the coffin, and to say a prayer. I was silently saying my own, along the lines of
“This coffin is very heavy – now I understand the meaning of the term ‘dead weight’ – please don’t take too long!”
Finally, we arrived and we lowered the coffin gently from shoulders to trestle.

As the funeral director, I was aware of the following: the hire car is open, in front of the church. When it looked like the vicar was about to start the service, I was relieved when he saw the look on my face before I rapidly exited the church to park and lock the car!

The service proceeded smoothly. All too soon it was my turn to speak the tribute to Henry in front of the congregation. My son, who had not spoken to me for some time, was present. With my legs shaking, I took a mouthful of water from the bottle in my hand and I drew breath.
During the last week, there had been plenty of time for me to work on what I was about to say. I preferred to let the thoughts build themselves without any effort for the first five days. The following day I had a chat with Joyce, which put a lot of thoughts into focus. On the night before, I wrote down some key words on a card, and put it in my suit pocket, together with some prayers that a priest-friend had posted to us for the occasion. The card stayed in my pocket – its presence was sufficient.
I celebrated Henry for his:

-determination -principles
-enjoyment -generosity
-integrity -kindness

with appropriate anecdotes, concluding with a celebration of the great love in his life; my mother, Joyce.

We took Holy Communion. Hymns were sung quietly. The vicar called the family members into a circle around the coffin, to say a prayer. My son, Elwin, was opposite me, at the head end. It felt like the most natural thing in the world when he took hold of the handle next to him and, together, we led the coffin to the Lady Chapel nearby. Communication without words, working together, just right.

At the conclusion, “Spirit in the sky”, by Norman Greenbaum, played through the church p.a. system. Demelza had obtained the cd from an internet service that sources rare music, given it to Neil, but it had been left in the car. An inner prompting, just before we started, reminded me to check, and he rushed off to get it. The disc was still wrapped. I quickly noted it was track two we wanted, not track one, and I pointed this out to the minister who was assisting the vicar. It is in the detail that events are delivered, I thought, hearing the right track playing. After all, it had been one of Henry’s favourites since he heard it on “Top of the Pops” in the nineteen sixties.

Joyce has asked me to sit by the coffin as the congregation proceeded to the reception. I was glad to do so, to keep the coffin company, and to take a little time for myself. After I had been sitting for a while, Sangeeta, my partner, arrived with a plate of food (she knows me well), together with a strong invitation from Joyce to join the reception.

This was perhaps the most challenging part of the day for me. People wanted to thank me for my tribute, and to catch up after many years of not being in touch.
Elwin had approached Joyce to ask if he, my daughter, Selina, my niece, Kerenza, and our friend, Fred, could come along to the burial. Joyce had repeatedly stated that she would not be inviting them to the burial, to reduce tension at the burial ground. With two of the younger generation not speaking to their parents, it seemed like the wise choice. However, when she was asked, she agreed.

Arrivals at Crossways were therefore a little tense. The vehicle i was driving with Henry aboard was the last to arrive – fitting, I thought.

“Spirit in the sky” was inserted into the BOSE stereo, powered by Martin’s generator. We began with some milling around, looking at the exhibition Demelza had created. She had gone to great trouble, hunting down a pack of bon-bons, one of Henry’s favourite sweets from long ago, for example. His slide rule was there, reminding us of his career in the Civil Service, as a Chartered Engineer. He began with rocket motors, moving on to torpedoes, and concluding with artificial kidney machines, though the Robinson family knew of these as ‘Dialysis Machines’. Lowella had baked a batch of fairy cakes the night before, one of his favourites. They looked divine on the shrine.

We gathered together in a big circle. Once I had introduced the ceremony, Joyce took charge, inviting each person to speak about Henry. At times, one or more people had to leave. Everyone who wished to, spoke. To conclude, I outlined the form of the burial itself, which we would complete in typical Jewish fashion. Some years ago, I had attended the funeral for a friend’s brother. I had been deeply moved by the authenticity of the experience. Everyone would be welcome to lend a hand to fill in the grave. Martin had repeatedly assured us before we began that they would finish off whatever we did not have the stomach for – did I detect a challenge?

Louis took my place as pall-bearer as I conducted the coffin to its place over the grave. Martin had provided two planks to support it, plus two webbing bands for the four pall-bearers to carefully lower the coffin into the hole, one I had removed the planks. No practice beforehand – perfect execution in the moment.

An assortment of spades and shovels were protruding from the soil pile. I took one and we began to fill in the grave with heavy clay, stony sub-soil. My nephew, Aengus, (age eight) distinguished himself by constantly working, wielding his spade, from beginning to end. The rest of us gave way to others. After almost half an hour the hole was filled. Next, we turned our attention to the pile of top-soil, creating a raised plinth. Finally, we took the large turves and placed them on top. My sister Jane had brought some primroses and the children planted them in the turves. Whilst all this was going on, Sangeeta was offering chocolate, another of Henry’s favourites, to one and all.

When we were finished, people broke off into groups to chat. A few of us enjoyed a quiet smoke by the graveside – another of Henry’s former pleasures. Meanwhile, Demelza, with helpers, was dismantling her pictorial and physical tribute to Henry. It seemed strange, driving away in the hire car without the coffin. I had been my companion since the day I had picked it up from the works.

Arriving at the restaurant, I felt some of the tensions between family members. Some of our party had to leave after a drink. The rest of us sat down to enjoy our meal, ably created by the chef at The Mullberry, in Cheriton Bishop. They even tolerated our sharing of a large vessel of Cotswold Spring water – an opportunity for us to bond as ‘eccentric Robinsons, teetotalers’.

Jane could see how tired Joyce was, so there was no dessert, no coffee, just time for everyone to drive home and get an early night, which is what we all did, except for Demelza’s family, who had a long drive home, arriving shortly before midnight if the traffic was kind.

As I re-live the moment of going to sleep that night, knowing of the job well-done, i am reminded of Henry’s great love for Joyce, for the family they co-created, and for those brave souls that have joined us as partners and children.

Was it hard work – yes!
Was it worth it – oh, yes!



My thanks go out to:

-the Mortuary staff at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital
-Martin at Crossways Woodland Burials
-Steve at Sunset Coffins
-Demelza, for creating the visual tribute to Henry
-John, Jonathan, Neil and Louis for pall-bearing
-Enterprise car rentals for the hire car
-the Reverend David James for the church service
-Kennaway House for the reception
-The Chattery for reception catering
-staff at The Mullberry for the meal
-all the family for the support and the challenge