Today I laid to rest a few bananas and one decomposing plum, flesh now pungent with death. I did this at 11:14 am, as my coffee brewed and as I sang my old school song under my breath. It was a perfunctory funeral, the gentle placing of fruit in a compost bag, but still better than the one afforded to the pigeon carcass I encountered yesterday. Its body, probably mauled by a fox, had been left splayed in a most disturbing manner, privates exposed to every passing car, head at an impossible angle and eyes glassy. Had he been a robin or a finch, someone would have moved his decimated body to the side, but alas, as a sky rat, he was stuck with me.
With so much varied experience of death under my belt, I believe myself to be somewhat of an expert. The daily burial of dearly departed fruit and vegetables, the constant streaming of serial killer documentaries has allowed me a comfort in the realm of the macabre. I frequently favour books by suicidal authors, albums of music by the manic depressed, and am vigilant about the all-black uniform code. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself, well, flailing, at the death of my grandfather.
It was not an untimely death, and it was not a surprising one. He was a few days shy of his 90th birthday, had a heart that wasn’t very good, and a mind that was quitting on him. He wrestled with the idea of death quite often, his diary entries getting bleaker by the day, and was by all accounts, waiting to be done.
But I didn’t get to go to the funeral.
The ritual of funerals has always seemed frivolous and futile, an exercise for the living. When you resist the idea of heaven and hell, when you reject prayer and believe we’re all destined to be worm food, the idea of a ritual of burning, burying, public emotional displays and theatrics seems almost trite. But I suppose every ritual has a redeeming feature, and for funerals it is closure.
My grandfather was a brigadier in the army, and his funeral was attended by a battalion of young Gorkhas, none of whom knew him. His pallbearers were all men, some of whom he had never spoken of. I know all this through photos of his funeral, because I was not there. I was in a tiny room on the other side of the world, buried under blankets and alone. The people at the funeral probably felt closure. They may not have known him as well, but they would have closure. There would be closure for the people who carried him, who played the trumpet, who watched.
But I need to find my own closure.
So, I do what I do. I read, imagine, write. My grandfather was a Sikh, and at his funeral he was cremated. It was a cold December morning, with the temperature at 8 degrees. There was a dense fog hanging low overhead, the lines between the earth and the sky briefly blurred. I’m by the body, I’m by the fire. I feel disconnected, it’s probably a coping mechanism. In my mind, I’m right there, and I want to be warmed by the flames on that cold day, I want to feel better, even if it’s just a physical change.
I feel like this is important, that it could be a profound moment, the thawing of my bones by the burning of his. But I’m not by the fire, not really. I’m not even in the country. I’m in a cold bedroom in England, physically removed from any closure. I’ve read that as the muscles of the body burn, the limbs of the person being cremated can flex and extend, so I begin to make my living legs spasm, the way his might have. They may not have, I don’t know how much muscle a 90-year-old man would have left. My twitchy legs offer no closure, I lie back into the blankets and sleep through the next few years.
The closure doesn’t come overnight, it doesn’t come in any way that is recognisable, it doesn’t come in any way that is complete, or in any way that is healing. But it comes. It comes through the old cliché of time, and certain flairs of neurosis. It comes in the awareness of the death of a plum and the clenching at the sight of a splayed, dead pigeon. It comes in the writing and rewriting of death, it comes in the writing and rewriting of a life. It comes crawling, but it comes.
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.