|The crematorium doesn't look like this, but it sure as hell feels like this.|
We drive to the crematorium where people are gathering, some of whom I have not seen in forty-odd years and would have walked past in the street, but recognise because I knew they’d be here. Someone tells me I haven’t changed much, although I’m pretty sure I look older than eleven. Others I see occasionally. Lesley, my mum’s younger sister, mutters to me ‘I hate this bloody place!’ and reminds me of a story about my grandad, a stone mason who’d worked on the crematorium building. It seems that he’d been asked if he wanted to witness the burning of a corpse, and on the grounds that this was not an offer you got every day, accepted. He watched through a spy-hole as the stiff unstiffened and writhed in the flames like the damned in the Lake of Fire. I’m not sure if all the details of the tale would stand up in court, but whatever it was that grandad saw that day made him a vegetarian for at least a week. He declared that he never wanted to go there again - a vain hope if you’re going to live in the same town into your eighties, for the crematorium just sits here, waiting patiently. We also remember Auntie Cilla, our family’s medium manquée, who also hated the crematorium because she always heard voices calling her by name as she walked through the grounds, a phenomenon readily explicable in a place as thick with archetypes as this. Lesley herself came to sign the book of remembrance a year after grandad had undergone the same process as the corpses he had watched combust all those years before. She had walked down the long winding drive to the crem as daylight was fading, and found the place closed and the air as always heavy with loss, misery and dead meat. She turned and fled. This reminded me of a monochrome dream I had in the eighties. I was in a crematorium building alone at night. There was a horror movie feeling of don’t-look-now as I tried to escape, for then I was always creeped out by the sight of coffins, hearses, wreaths and shrouds, all the trappings of death.
We reassure her that tears are perfectly OK at a funeral, and that she’s far from the only one weeping, but she’s not having it. ‘You feel such a chump when everybody else is handling it so much better.’
A friend of my auntie's says to her gently, 'come on, Shirley, you need to be strong for Joan.'
'I can't help it,' mum sniffs. 'Some are just better at handling tears than others.'
This buttoned-up attitude would be inexplicable to the Greeks, who don't think you have emotions at all unless you're playing to the gallery. Auntie Joan, in British terms at least, is doing remarkably well, accepting consoling hugs with smiles, dignity and composure. In contrast, after my dad died my mum wouldn't answer the phone for three weeks in case it was someone offering condolences, which would result in instant meltdown.
We're a bloody odd bunch.