It was the first funeral I’d been to as an adult. Until that point, my understanding of what went on at ceremonial burials was based, as much as anything else, on the Hugh Grant film Four Weddings and a Funeral. But this funeral was real – my grandmother’s, a member of my own family, not some fictitious character in a 90s romantic comedy. It was a burial in a church cemetery, which felt a little unbefitting, given that I don’t remember anyone in my family ever having stepped foot inside a church, except perhaps to admire some Gothic architecture whilst on holiday in France.
No, religion had never been a feature of life for us. But then my grandmother was of a different generation, where, even if you had little genuine fondness for the church and its teachings, you were still expected to keep up the appearance of having a faith. You still ticked the box marked “Church of England” on official forms. But these days, we didn’t even do that. In a sense, our family was emblematic of the decline of Christianity in western Europe: within three generations our relationship to the church had gone from one of dutiful allegiance to one of complete obliviousness. Religion simply played no part in our lives; it wasn’t so much that we had “rejected” it – more that it had never been a consideration in the first place.
So as we all paraded our way down through the wet grass of the church grounds to the grave where my grandmother would be buried, my feelings were mixed. Of course there was sadness, and that curious inarticulate emptiness that characterises the loss of someone close – but all that was a private matter, or at least something to be shared in the suddenly poignant ordinariness of contact with close family. The affected solemnity of the vicar’s words, together with the slightly laboured procession he led through the graveyard, struck me as faintly ridiculous. I remember looking round at my father, sister, uncle, cousins, and wondering what – or even whether – they were feeling anything at all. To me, the entire ceremony – the ritualism, the religious deference, the formulaic banality of the sermon – seemed wholly misplaced, and had nothing to do with my grandmother at all.
At a certain point the vicar invited us to throw some soil down onto the coffin. We’d already arranged that my sister would do this, but she’d suddenly become irrationally worried about slipping on the wet grass and falling into the hole, and so I did it instead. I stepped forward, picked up some earth, and let it fall through my fingers down onto the coffin. The gesture should surely have meant something, but, distracted by thoughts of Hugh Grant and the irritatingly benign voice of the vicar (who, a few moments before, had mistakenly referred to my grandmother as Mona Stella “Bell”, at which point my father had had to interject with “Ball”), I wasn’t in a frame of mind to appreciate its symbolic resonance. All this enforced and disingenuous religiosity had rendered the proceedings absurd.
Some years later, this time at the funeral of my maternal grandmother, I was again prompted to reflect on the nature of the ceremony. Although hers was a secular cremation, the atmosphere was identical to what I’d witnessed before. Everyone spoke in the same hushed and deferent tones, and the modest gathering of family and friends present seemed ill at ease, perhaps unaccustomed to the formality of the occasion. Carefully selected music was played, dedications were read, and I stepped up to read a poem. It was a low-key affair, characterised by a lack of ostentation appropriate to our family’s generally introverted nature.
After the service, one of the funeral directors asked my mother what she wanted to do with the floral wreath that had been laid on top of the coffin. She hesitated, unsure what to say. ‘Some people like to take it away with them to the reception, lay it on a table and offer mourners the chance to take a flower away with them,’ suggested the man, no doubt seeing it as part of his professional duty to gently inform bereaving relatives of common customs. ‘Oh, yes, that’s a good idea,’ replied my mother, without much conviction. The conventionalism of funerary ritual had once again imposed itself, intruding on a family’s private sorrow with a gesture so generic and baseless that it felt almost comically out of place. Unsurprisingly, the wreath sat on the table for the duration of the reception, politely ignored by everyone.
It struck me afterwards that this had been a religious ceremony in all but name; without appealing to any particular faith, it had nevertheless felt infused with unspecific symbolism. In the absence of religious observance, I came to realise, lies a vacuum waiting to be filled with meaningful gesture. I thought again of that celebrated scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral where John Hannah movingly reads a WH Auden elegy to his character’s deceased partner. In a film largely comprised of comedy and melodrama, the scene stands out for its genuine power and beauty. In art as in life, such moments still resonate; even in our post-religious western condition, we still crave something meaningful and affecting to hold on to at times of death.
A few months later, on a grey November afternoon near my studio in the hinterlands of Berlin, I went out for a walk through a nearby cemetery. I’d only recently discovered it was there, hidden amongst the trees in this sleepy and colourless part of the city. Strolling through the grounds, I became aware of the sound of a distant trumpet; at first I assumed it was some sort of daytime rehearsal or soundcheck, since the instrument was being played without any accompaniment, and, to my ears at least, without much enthusiasm. But then I noticed a small gathering of people over at the far side of the cemetery. They were mostly elderly, and felt like the kind of people who might disapprove of my being there, hanging around rather suspiciously with a camera slung over one shoulder.
It soon became clear, however, that the people were mourners, gathered to pay their last respects. The trumpeter belonged to the group, too, and was now playing a rather forlorn rendition of the Frank Sinatra classic, My Way. Keeping a respectful distance, I stood and watched this strange scene playing out in front of me. The sight of a group of conservative-looking Germans huddled around a grave listening to a kitschy showbiz ode to nonconformity struck me as utterly incongruous. If the sedate dress and grey passionless faces of the assembled well-wishers was anything to go by, I rather doubted the dead man had ever done anything “his own way”. But that was just speculation; I hadn’t known him, after all. There was at least the possibility that the gesture meant something – specifically, to these people gathered in this particular cemetery on this particular afternoon in November. I hoped, for the man’s sake at least, that it did.
Around me the trees were beginning to sway in the breeze; I looked up at the rapidly darkening sky. Three or four crows took off in unison, squawking loudly against the gloom, wholly indifferent to the ceremony unfolding below them.