We gathered at the little church of Thorn Cross at midday yesterday: myself and Mum, carrying Dad’s ashes in the compact but surprisingly heavy wooden casket; two of my cousins; and family friends both local and remote. All there to witness the final, brief act of four months of bereavement, as the ashes were interred in the churchyard. Unfortunately, it emerged that one of the three key parties to the ceremony, after ourselves and the vicar, was not amongst us - the gravedigger. There was a hole at the heart of our little community, and thus there was not a hole where there should have been one, in the ground.
The vicar was most apologetic, although it was not her fault as it was the responsibility of the funeral directors to engage the man with the spade. A neighbour who did some voluntary work around the grounds offered to fetch a spade, but the vicar said it would be better done by someone “qualified and insured”. At short notice, she called upon their ‘regular’, who said he would have someone there within twenty minutes. We went inside for a coffee. (Meanwhile, the promised digger duly attended, but not before first going to the wrong church - the one up the road to which the vicar also administered on the time-share basis that is now common in declining rural parishes.)
Coffees drunk and small talk made, and having noted down the names of the grandchildren, the Reverend decided to press on with “a short service”. After the briefest biographical introduction, and the standard entreaties towards finding comfort “within God”, she announced, “Let’s all take a few minutes to remember Colin’s place in our lives”, presumably so that she could glance out of the window to await the thumbs-up.
After a few more prayers but thankfully no hymns, we trooped outside, bearing the casket. A man in a dayglo jerkin and builder’s boots holding a spade duly made himself scarce. The hole was not much deeper than some I’ve dug for household pets, but it was certainly sufficient. The remains of my father, together with his previous dog (“Together Again”), were laid next to those of the man up the road who passed away suddenly a few years ago, together with the owl he had kept in his back garden. In millenia to come, palaeontologists will wonder at the genetic remnants of the strange dog-men and bird-men races of the early 21st Century.
It was an odd, ecclesiastical end to the story of an avowedly atheist man who had, two months previously, been given a secular funeral. But Dad wanted to be placed in the local churchyard because it was convenient for Mum to visit. This was, the vicar assured us, not a problem, regardless of my father’s lifelong determination never to set foot in the building, although she would have to officiate and therefore it would be a Christian burial. Which was fair enough - her gaff, her rules. In the absence of an equivalent local secular place in which he could be interred (which is unlikely to materialise given that atheists by their nature lack a unifying cause sufficient to drive them to claim such a space), we all had to swallow our various objections - and our utter, cynical, rank hypocrisy.
To be fair, at no point did we pretend to be pious men of faith, so you can argue that the cynicism wasn’t entirely one-sided. I’ve spent … ooh, minutes at least, attempting to justify what we did here, and I can’t really. It’s not that I worry about offending or disrepecting an abstract concept (a religion) that I don’t have much regard for (the same indifference got me through a Christian marriage ceremony for the sake of my wife). I suspect it’s more the legacy of my dad’s abiding need never to feel obligated to someone else, particularly when you don’t have time for them. Perhaps finally and for the only time, Dad felt he’d no longer have to care on this occasion. In the end, we have a legally-sanctioned plot in which Dad can rest that will always be accessible to Mum. Needs must. (And you have to allow that the Church are certainly good in a crisis.)
Only through God can one come to terms with one’s loss and find peace, we were told during the service. I can assure you that is not true.