I Remember
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I don’t remember where I was when John Kennedy was shot.

I don’t remember where I was when Robert Kennedy was shot.

I don’t remember where I was when Edward Kennedy heroically swam away from the dead body of Mary Jo Kopechne.

I remember being held up by my father to watch the funeral procession of Queen Mary go past.

I remember standing in the Finchley Road to watch Diana Spencer’s hearse go by and wondering if the driver was allowed to use his windscreen wipers to sweep away the flowers that were constantly being thrown on to it.

I remember my mother wearing a cream dress with a black satin rose on the shoulder to Grandpa’s cremation, and not being able to decide if it was defiantly stylish or a little bit naff.

I remember going to Mark Boxer’s funeral and spending a lot of time trying to work out the date of the church. I remember feeling triumphant when I came home, checked it in Pevsner and found I was only two years out.

I remember going to Ian Hamilton’s funeral and trying to work out how many of the women present had had an affair with him.

I remember grief not behaving in the way it was supposed to.

I remember two members of the school rugby team I played in dying while still in the sixth form, one in a car accident, one supposedly by his own hand after getting a girl pregnant; both of them were called Smith.

I remember my schoolfriend Alex Brilliant, who was much better than me at English, whom I lost touch with after he went to Cambridge, and whose parallel existence, presumably in one of the liberal professions, I occasionally went on imagining for the next twenty-five years. I remember not knowing how to think about the matter when I learnt that he had killed himself almost half a lifetime back.

I remember Christopher J Dixon, the English master who taught us both and left to take up a post at Eton, and who killed himself there in a drink-and-pills pact with his wife.

I remember that most of the funerals I have attended have been of men.

Though I remember going to Arthur and Cynthia Koestler’s joint funeral at Mortlake Crematorium, and how, after the matching coffins had been brought in, the undertaker solemnly propped up on top of each a hand-lettered cardboard sign, one reading ‘Arthur’, the other ‘Cynthia’, just so we knew who we were looking at.

And I remember the vicar at Dodie Smith’s funeral unsuccessfully trying to win over the congregation with the line, ‘I do myself have some connection with show business – I once shared a house with Cliff Richard.’

I also remember the wreath sent by the British Dalmatian Society, and being disappointed that it was not black and white.

I remember looking down at the hole into which they had lowered Terence Kilmartin and realizing it had been dug to an extra depth so that his widow could at some future time be buried on top of him.

I remember thinking, that is a very long way down.

I remember the awful fake look on a friend’s face that day, and my realisation that he was ‘doing grief’.

I remember the apocalyptic storm which broke as I was driving back from the funeral.

I remember the friend with the fake look not coming on with the rest of us from church to cemetery, and me rebuking him with, ‘You’ve got to see them into the ground.’

I remember being surprised when Ian Hamilton, after a church service, was driven away for cremation rather than being buried in the graveyard outside. I remember thinking: crematorium, cremation; church, burial – isn’t that how it goes? When I asked someone about this, I was told, ‘Ian had a horror of being buried alive’. And I remember thinking: As opposed to a horror of being screwed into a wooden box for three days and then burnt alive?

I remember not going to my grandmother’s funeral because I simply couldn’t be arsed.

I remember George Brassens songs in which grief provokes lust, and the black-veiled widow is consoled by her dead husband’s best mate; but cannot adduce any evidence of this myself.
I remember Iris Murdoch novels – or, perhaps, television adaptations of them – or, more likely, a single TV adaptation of one of them – in which a funeral is a nexus of infighting and intrigue, enough to launch a novel on its course; but I cannot adduce any evidence of this either.

I remember when mourners first began to wear ‘smart casual’, their summer suits and open-necked shirts implying that they were too deep in grief to bow to the stifling conventions of mourning; further, that the departed would not just understand, but appreciate how cool they were being. I remember thinking this a kind of vanity. But since I do not remember ever seeing dress specifications on a funeral invitation, perhaps they were right, and grieving just as much as the conventionally clad.

I remember noticing for the first time, at Ian Hamilton’s funeral, that the pallbearers, after the service was over, turned the coffin round – like a locomotive on a turntable – before heading back down the aisle, so that the dead are indeed carried out feet first.

I remember saying to Russell Davies, as Ian’s coffin passed us, ‘Why do the pallbearers always look like minor criminals?’, and him replying, ‘Because they are.’

I remember people deciding, at a certain point in their lives, not to go to any more of the funerals which increasingly fill the diaries of those growing older.

I remember Dodie Smith staying at home even for her husband’s funeral; not from lack of love – though perhaps from a sense of disappointment that he had let her down by dying first. I remember her explaining to me, ‘They came and took him away,’ as if I might otherwise suspect he was still in the house.

I remember ‘Singing in the Rain’ being played at John Coleman’s funeral as the coffin slid away between those sinister doors, and how it was unaccountably cut off with about an eighth of its length still to go. I remember wondering if we were being told our crem-time was up.

I remember Alan Brien spraying spittle and sausage roll over me at the subsequent wake at The Old Bull & Bush, and telling me how he was supposed not to be a very nice man, but giving me an example to prove otherwise.

I remember not having raised the question in the first place.

I remember the vicar who took Ian Hamilton’s funeral saying that The Times had that morning published a ‘fulsome’ obituary of him.

I remember thinking that Ian wouldn’t have liked that misuse.

I don’t remember thinking that, were he still alive in his coffin and fearing live burial, catachresis would have been the least of his concerns.

I remember the self-help booklet they handed out at my mother’s cremation, answering all those questions a mourner might reasonably be expected to ask. I remember thinking that it would have saved me embarrassment, five years earlier, when I had asked the crematorium director at my father’s funeral if we could take the ashes away with us, and him explaining, with euphemisms, that burnt corpses took a long time to cool down.

I remember disputing the bill with the undertaker who arranged my mother’s funeral; not just because he charged ten per cent more than he said he would, but because that’s what she would have wanted me to do.

I remember thinking the usual things about whether you really got the ashes you were meant to.

I remember my father in a heavy wooden casket and my mother in a plastic screw-top jar.

I remember taking them to France by Eurostar for scattering, though only one of them had the necessary ‘out of England’ certificate. Being illicitly exported after death was probably the only time my father broke the law.

And I remember that none of these ceremonies, secular or religious, church or crematorium, friend or family, solemn or celebratory, well- or ill-dressed, brought the slightest consolation, expiation, or even explanation.

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