Kate Fenton


The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up
The Time of Her Life





My great aunts, Florrie and Emily, were funeral connoisseurs. Attending my first funeral as a teenager in Manchester, I was appalled when the undertaker discreetly invited us to view the deceased. Not so the aunts, who scooted off in their best blacks and a miasma of mothballs, emerging to assure us, with tearful satisfaction, that ‘they do ‘em beautiful at the Co-op.’

The service proved less satisfactory. In a chapel as sterile as a dentist’s waiting room, with wonky canned music and a vicar who didn’t know us from a bar of soap, it lasted all of twenty minutes and conveyed less about my late grandparent than a driving licence application.

I don’t blame the gents of the Co-op. Harold Wilson’s modern Britain was no place for Victorian mawkishness. That attitudes are shifting, however – that death could almost be said to be coming back into fashion – is illustrated by a booklet issued this week by none other than Co-operative Funeral Service, offering advice on the writing of eulogies.

I wish it had been around when my Dad died. That’s the trouble with funerals. The first you organise will inevitably be that of someone near and probably very dear. Shocked, raw-nerved and bereft, you’re suddenly stage-managing a clan gathering as big as a wedding, in ten days flat.

It has become a cliché to compare Victorian coyness about sex to twentieth century squeamishness about death, but one result is that, while my generation was taught the facts of life as toddlers, we’ve been left to learn the facts of death the hard way, by experience.

I find it odd to think about the number of funeral services I’ve helped organize over the years. I reckon it’s because a novelist married to an actor must strike our acquaintance as a rarely useful combination for the finding and delivery of readings. Don’t laugh – or shudder – but I actually keep a fat file of appropriate material these days. Florrie and Emily would be proud of me.

But, hell, the standard response to a bereavement is an offer of help – and I’m a lousy flower arranger. Moreover, I once made a radio documentary about beirdd gwlad, the village poets of Wales. Just as the local joiner makes the coffin, these wordsmiths are called upon to craft a pithy epitaph. I can still hear a distinguished bard declaring, in a voice as sonorous as a tolling bell, that it is ‘important to say the last words about the dead, and to say them well.’

Absolutely. And the eulogy – those carefully-chosen words of evocation, celebration and parting – is the place to do it. As Andrew Motion, bard to the English nation, says in his foreword to the Co-op handbook, it is as if the speaker were handing a photograph to everyone present, and allowing them to keep it when the ceremony ends.

Mind, you can see why the not-yet-dead might get twitchy at the prospect. A terminally ill Dennis Potter apparently told television producer Kenith Trodd, with whom he had a spiky friendship, that what chiefly worried him about dying was Trodd being invited to deliver an address.

I don’t know whether similar qualms or just black humour prompted a (rudely healthy) friend of ours to pre-record his own. With a ghoulish echo, apparently produced via cupped hands, he intoned: ‘You probably all think I’m lying in that box over there, but…’ At his funeral many years later, we waited, agog, to see if the fabled tape would be played. It wasn’t, but his eulogist told the story to piquant comic effect.

That, I guess, is where we contemporary funeral-istas part company with the Victorians. They didn’t go in for jokes. They mourned the death and anticipated the afterlife. Today, when even we churchgoers are unlikely to cherish a simple harps-and-flowers vision of Heaven, we tend to celebrate the earthly life while trying to make sense of death. And, except in the most tragic circumstances, laughter feels as right and proper in a modern ceremony as flowers and music.

It’s a tough call for the eulogist, however. We expect them to be comedian, friend, biographer and comforter rolled into one – but we need their words to express and release our communal feelings. These rituals may be about the dead, but they are for the living. The psycho-babblers talk about closure, Greek dramatists about catharsis. Me, I stick with Florrie and Emily’s view that there’s nowt like a good funeral for setting t’world to rights.

And while I can’t answer for the Co-op’s contemporary skills with the remains, I assure you they do a beautiful leaflet.

©Kate Fenton 2002