I’ve arrived 30 minutes early, although I have no idea why, it’s just what one does. Apparently, judging by the queue forming at the entrance to the small village church’s vestibule door, most concur with my excessive promptness.
Down the grey steps we shuffle in silence, my leather clad hand reaching for the rusty rail to ensure I don’t slip; rotten red and brown leaves strew the bent stone and I cringe at the mental image of inadvertently instigating a human domino descent. Many of the heads below me are silver, the well padded black shoulders perform pendulum-like sways from left-to-right as each step is deliberately taken.
Down on terra firma, it’s my turn to pass through the weathered red, flaking door and into the gloom. The entrance is a small and, currently crowded, five metre square. Despite the doors being open, there is a musty, damp smell which overwhelms the huge spray of carnations, roses and lilies on top of the near empty mahogany bookcase in the corner. I am handed the white order of service by a faceless man and then it’s my turn to whisper clichéd condolences to two men, one of whom I know very well, the other I have never met.
Scott looks numb, his eyes soften briefly in recognition as I look up at him and offer a silent cuddle and gentle squeeze of his arm. For his brother, I awkwardly go with a safe shake of the hand and a mumbled apology. What else is there to say to a man obliged to play host to a line of forgotten faces? Every funeral, I question the lack of compassion within this social protocol. For whose benefit is this aged ritual that asks for so much stoicism from those most affected by the death of a loved one? And yet here they both are, as we expect them to be – middle aged men standing statuesque, spotlit on stone; frozen together with grief for their dead mother, nodding blankly to chirps of comfort they hardly hear.
Despite the queue of early arrivers, finding a seat is not going to be a problem. I slide along a vacant pew, polished and smooth from decades of trouser bottoms, a pale yellow oak in a safely respectful middle row. A coffin sits front and centre, it’s shape and form quietly camouflaged by a bouquet of purple carnations, dotted with pale pinks and white gypsophilum. The organist supplies a reverent back-track to the hushed, muttered greetings towards each new dark addition to a pew. One by one, heads bow to pay seemingly rapt attention to every word written on the only available source of distraction for the next half hour.
Three hymns read several times, I cast my eyes up. A non-believer, my upwards gaze is not in reverence to this house of a Higher Power but, instead, to study and admire the mural of Jesus, with his disciples at his feet, in the huge stained glass window that casts dim speckled light over the pulpit and coffin below. I wonder at the craftsmanship and number of hours spent, painstakingly puzzling each tiny coloured section of glass and moulding the numerous lead shapes that an unknown artist has instructed for the construction of a bigger picture.
A hush descends on the congregation as the closest members of the family walk down the aisle. The heads around me bow, this time, in respect; eyes downcast to avoid any uncomfortable or dishonouring glimpse of faces contorted with emotion and blotched red with tears. Like clock-work, I hear from behind me a swishing of fabric and a tap-tapping of metal cane on threadbare carpet as the Minister strides purposefully past me in her floor length Geneva Gown. I feel a sense of relief within and around me – a sense of control and purpose has finally been granted to the unsure flock.
Calling order, the Minister raises her arms out wide to her sides, giving her blessing; the wide sleeves of her black gown fall like flags and I am reminded of a very large rook perched high on a branch. The hunched black shoulders and grey heads in the benches in front of me now resemble rows of crows huddled together on telephone wires. And, as the opening chords of ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ begins, the black birds rise as one and the service takes flight.
Cover image courtesy of M1k3 via Flickr