A Good Funeral

Yesterday I drove to a tiny hamlet near Henley called Pishill. I went there to attend the funeral of Margaret Campbell, a wonderful woman whom, I regret to say, I knew much better decades ago than recently. It is to my eternal shame that I made no effort, in the last few years, to see her, her late husband (Garry), who died three months ago, or their delightful children, Dermot and Fiona. How enormously sad it was that, when Fiona tracked me down on Face Book, her immediate news was that her mother’s funeral would be taking place on Friday.

Before I tell you about the funeral, which was outstandingly good, I must say a word about the Campbells, and particularly about Margaret. As is often the case, I learned more about her from the funeral than I ever knew in her life. But I will restrict myself to a few of my own memories.

The Utleys first met the Campbells when my late father was selected as the Official Unionist Candidate for North Antrim in the February 1974 general election. The Chairman of the local party was Garry Campbell. He and his wife, Margaret, despite having two very small children (Fiona was a baby), had my parents to stay before and throughout the campaign. And my siblings and I also made several trips to stay with them. They were the most generous hosts you could imagine.

Margaret, I hope her children will forgive me if they ever read this, struck me as being delightfully scatty. I remember once, for instance, Margaret going off to the shops with her baby daughter and returning with all she had bought, but without her baby. All was fine. A rescue mission was mounted and Fiona came back entirely oblivious of what had happened.

She also had a charming way of saying whatever came into her mind with little thought of the consequences. There was the memorable occasion, when various upstanding local Unionists were gathered in her drawing room and she mentioned that someone, I can’t remember who, had been rather offhand to her. “It’s because I am a Catholic,” she said. Now this was rather surprising. First, and most obviously, she was not (then) a member of the Roman Catholic Church. She was, like Garry, a member of the Church of Ireland. Secondly, of course, there were many Unionists who were deeply suspicious of Catholics. It was bad enough for them that they were saddled with a candidate (my father) who was married to a Roman Catholic (though he was a devout member of the Church of England) and who had four Catholic children. The news that the Chairman’s wife was also claiming to be Catholic must have come as a bit of a shock. But Margaret’s charm won the day and no harm came of her strange announcement (I don’t think Paisley’s victory in the election had anything to do with it).

But there was a lot more to Margaret than those anecdotes would suggest. To start with, she was a remarkably good artist (she had studied at the Slade). Then, when the family felt compelled to leave Northern Ireland as a result of threats to their lives (from both sides), she came into her own as she opened a shop just off Knightsbridge. It was the place to go if you wanted tasteful and unusual gifts. I would often drop in, just before closing time, and chat to Margaret before going with her and Garry to some local hostelry. I don’t know if it made money, but it certainly became something of an institution.

Margaret and Garry settled in Stonor near Henley. After she gave up the business I lost touch with them (my fault), though, typically, they gave us an exceptionally generous wedding present. Years went by and then, just the other day, Fiona found me on Face Book and gave me the sad news.

I am so glad I went to the funeral. I am becoming something of an expert on funerals, as the advertisers on various internet sites must have worked out since most of them seem to think my only interest in life is arranging my own funeral. What is more, I have become a bit of a campaigner for good funerals. I have been to one or two incredibly dreary and bad funerals. You know the sort: “family only, no flowers”, a half hour service with canned music in a hideous crematorium. How miserable they are. I must say, at once, that grief takes us all in different ways. It is certainly not for me to criticise those who think the right way to mark the deaths of their loved ones is to do so in an atmosphere of unrelenting misery.

But often, I would guess, those who arrange those hole in the corner type funerals do so because they assume it is what is expected of them. Indeed, I remember, the morning after my father’s own death, taking part in a family conference about what to do. The first item on the agenda was the wording of the notice to be put in the Times and the Telegraph. Someone, I can’t remember who it was, was looking through that day’s death notices in the ‘paper. “Well, it looks like we put in something like ‘family only, no flowers, memorial service later'”. Fortunately, someone said “Why?”. We talked it through. We all agreed that we would not copy the standard death notice. All were invited to the funeral. And what a magnificent occasion it was. My father’s quite large parish church was packed, standing room only. The Prime Minister, she was called Margaret Thatcher, was in the front left hand pew (we were in the right). There were lots of other grand people there, but there were many more “ordinary” people. The service (Prayer Book in deference to my father’s position as Patron of the Prayer Book Society) was used. The music was sublime. How awful it would have been if we had, unthinkingly, copied the death notices and gone for family only.

But this is not about my father’s funeral. It is about Margaret Campbell’s. And hers was brilliant. She did, about thirty years ago, convert to Roman Catholicism. But her funeral was in a gorgeous T-shaped Anglican church (originally Norman but rebuilt – without any harm – in the nineteenth century). The rite, however, was Catholic. It was a beautiful requiem Mass. Enormously accomplished musicians, voice and instruments, brought tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted. Even the priest, not common these days, sang beautifully. The hymns were old favourites. The readings were very well chosen. The homily was magnificent. And then we get to the address, delivered by Fiona. Now I have to say, just to throw a spanner in the works, that I am not terribly keen on eulogies at funerals. Often, they are deeply embarrassing and delivered by weeping family members who really ought to stay firmly in their pews. But Fiona proved me wrong. Her address was informative. It told us things most of us never knew about Margaret. But it was also very funny. And there was none of that distressing sobbing which so often accompanies funeral eulogies.

This is not to suggest that Fiona was unaffected by her mother’s funeral. Rather the opposite. Let me, in my tedious way, go back to my father’s funeral. Someone wrote a wonderful article about it in the Daily Telegraph. One of her themes was that, though many grown men were shamelessly weeping, she noticed that the only dry eyes were those of the deceased’s widow and children. And yet she knew (and she was quite right) that we, the family, were distraught at our loss. I knew that Fiona was also deeply upset. But, in a rather English way, she battled through and performed wonderfully.

Of course, there is no reason why any of you should be interested in funerals I have been to. But what I hope is that, when you find yourself having to arrange one, you will do as the Campbells did and will not be taken in by the pressure to make it all horribly dreary and unrelentingly sad.

Charles

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4 thoughts on “A Good Funeral

  1. Having had to organise the funeral’s of my parents, and as a church warden to assist at too many funerals to count, I agree entirely that there are good funerals.
    And I’d also comment that the good funeral doesn’t stop at the church (or crem) door, but goes on to wherever the funeral tea is held. it’s here where people catch up, tell tales of the past, and feel the future is probably not going to be as bad as they feared.
    A good funeral becomes a celebration of a life

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  2. A funeral is the place to celebrate the life and achievements of the departed. If you can’t do it then, when can you? Some I’ve been to are dreary affairs where surviving relatives have a communal tearfest challenge. I’ll agree that the young are robbed If their lives are cut short, but the old and grey have ample opportunity to have a crack at life’s goals.

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